Members of the public in front of the Christchurch High Court during the last day of the sentencing of the March 15 shooter (Photo: SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP via Getty Images)

With this report on the Christchurch terror attacks, is NZ now ready to face its demons?

Aotearoa’s challenges are clear, but it is incumbent, too, on the Australian government to launch an inquiry of its own – the society that shaped the terrorist and the failure of its own intelligence services, writes Anjum Rahman.

My first impression on reading the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks on Christchurch Mosques was a feeling of being underwhelmed. To be fair, I haven’t had time to read the full report, nor to digest it fully.

One of the initial things that stood out for me is the history of family violence in the life of the terrorist. He was abused by a partner of his mother, to the extent that an “apprehended violence order was taken out” to protect him. In so many cases of mass murder and terrorist attacks, we find family violence featuring in the history of the killer, who has also very often committed violent acts against intimate partners.

This is borne out by the research, as is the fact that misogyny is a feature of “lone actor” attacks. The question is, what are we going to do about this? Adequate resourcing to support children who have suffered violence is still not available. The institutions set up to protect these children have been found sadly wanting. Attempts to counter misogyny are often vigorously resisted.

Who will lead change in this area? The report suggests the Ministry of Social Development lead the work on social cohesion, with strong input by communities, civil society, local government and the private sector. A community empowerment approach is recommended, which means handing over decision-making power to communities.

A second aspect of the report is that the closest relations of the terrorist – his mother and sister – were concerned about his views and his mental state. His sister stated that she began to have concerns in early 2017. His mother reported feeling “petrified” about his mental health and increasingly racist views. Who could these women report their concerns to, and how?

In order for close family members and friends to report concerns, they would need to feel assured that there was a system with the capability and resources to treat their relative with care and compassion. They would need to be aware of whom to report to, and understand the consequences of making that report. They would want to be sure that the reporting would lead to positive change for the individual concerned without infringing on their social and political rights.

At the time these two women felt concern, they had no awareness of the terrorist’s planned massacre. They just knew that something was wrong. We, as a society, needed them to raise those concerns with someone.

The Royal Commission report mentions a “see something, say something policy”. Like previous campaigns on family violence, it is a campaign that asks the public to report any concerning behaviour they might witness. Such a policy does not, though, take into account the historical and structural discrimination in society.

From overseas experience, we see so many incidents of innocent people of colour having the police called on them as they are going about their normal business. Simply because they are in a place where privileged members of society believe they shouldn’t be. People of colour report being stopped more often by police.

In this country, research by JustSpeak confirms racism in the justice system, from the likelihood of being charged to conviction and incarceration rates. In a system with known bias, a “see something, say something” policy can lead to unfair and unjust results, which are counter-productive in reducing extremist violence. In particular, it may mean that white supremacists are not reported, but innocent people of colour are reported in high numbers. For Black Americans, that kind of reporting can and has resulted in death.

What this indicates is that the success of any new systems is dependent on eliminating racism and discrimination both within government and wider society. The question is whether or not New Zealand is ready to face its demons, and do the mahi required of us. Perhaps we finally are ready to have the difficult conversations of sharing power, tino rangatiratanga under the Treaty and constitutional change.

In a year that gave us the heartbreak of the Covid pandemic and the power of the Black Lives Matter marches, in the reflections since the mosque attacks, perhaps we are ready to have those conversations in a constructive way. Perhaps we are ready for change.

A final thought on this report: the terms of reference constrained the commissioners so they were unable to look beyond the New Zealand government. The terrorist grew up in Australia – that is where he formed his thinking and that is the society that shaped him. It is incumbent on the Australian government to conduct its own inquiry into what could and should have been done to ensure he had the kind of support that might have arrested his path to radicalisation and terrorism.

There were multiple incidents and points where that support should have been provided. There may well have been points where his activities should have raised concerns. He had not “been identified” by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, but we need to know if he should have been. Only the Australian government can set up an inquiry to answer that question.

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