The killing of 49 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, was a very modern massacre. Pacing through the Mosque, the terrorist live-streamed his killings in the style of Call of Duty, with a head-mounted camera that allowed his viewers to see the world from his deranged point of view.
The terrorist was the most loathsome kind of attention seeker, and to give him attention is thus to encourage other pathologically pretentious men to ape his crimes. Still, there are aspects of this attack that should be noted.
Whenever a shocking massacre happens, we see different yet similar responses from the left and right. When a jihadi is the perpetrator, lefties tend to brand them as exceptional, unrepresentative psychos, and even dwell on the ‘root causes’ of their murderousness, while conservatives blame their hostile ideology. When a fascist is the perpetrator conservatives tend to brand them as exceptional, unrepresentative psychos, and even dwell on the ‘root causes’ of their murderousness, while leftists blame their hostile ideology.
You can see this happening already, but one factor that often acknowledged thought little explored is how this murderer reflects the tendencies of dark internet subcultures. He was, to borrow a phrase, ‘extremely online’.
The killer announced his plans on 8chan, which is such a toxic place that it accomplishes the unusual feat of giving messageboards a bad name. Amid the stew of racial hate and dense in-jokes you find there, he popped up to say the time for ‘shitposting’ had ended. He was going to ‘attack against the invaders’. His fellow posters promptly react to his crimes with sadistic approval. ‘I’M DYIN’ OVER HERE!’ one or them posted as he watched the thigh-slapping antics of a soulless gunman.
‘Shitposting’ is the art of posting streams of messages with thick layers of irony and sincerity that amuse your allies and befuddled and upset your opponents. The man’s crimes were all too real, but they were engineered in the style of a shitpost. His manifesto and his deeds blended sarcasm and seriousness in a manner that makes it difficult to understand his motivations.
For example, the murderer credited the Turning Point provocateur Candace Owens with being his major influence, adding, on the other hand, that ‘the extreme actions she calls for are too much, even for my tastes.’ This, and his call to subscribe to the YouTube channel of the famous vlogger PewDiePie, are examples of a popular neo-Nazi tactic of implying that more mainstream people are their comrades. This amuses them when journalists fall for the joke, and also allows them to amplify their message by seeming more influential than they actually are. The infamous far-right webzine The Daily Stormer has on different occasions announced itself to be in league with PewDiePie, or the son of Benjamin Netanyahu, or Jeremy Corbyn.
This sneering facetiousness demands that journalists be careful. You cannot take such these trolls at their word. Still, there is seriousness mixed in with trolling. When the murderer claimed, in his manifesto, that he was not just trying to kill Muslims but to provoke leftists into clamping down on civil liberties to the point that conservatives are driven into the arms of fascists he was possibly being honest. When he wrote about hating Muslim ‘invaders’, he was certainly sincere.
Still, this tragedy shows that the line between malicious memes and real murderousness is not always clear. Nobody decent wants to be censorious about jokes, but in extreme cases such as this it is clear that there is no convenient way to separate humor from horror. This man’s killings were pure comedy for his fellow trolls. He drove up to the mosque playing the famous pro-Serb song that the alt-right has immortalized under the name ‘Remove Kebab’ and they chuckled along as gleefully as when he started gunning down helpless people.
This case also raises a morbid ‘chicken and egg’ question. Is the irony just a platform for the hatred or can the nihilistic pleasures of outraging ‘normies’ become so intense that it leads some people to delight in murder? The answer, one suspects, is both. ‘Irony poisoning’, Urban Dictionary informs us:
‘…is when one’s worldview/Weltanshauung/reality tunnel is so dominated by irony and detachment- based-comedy, that the joke becomes real and you start to do things that are immoral and wrong from a place of deep nihilistic cynicism.’
Of course, this case does not reflect true detachment, because of the lurid racial enmity and because if you take such delight in upsetting and outraging people, you are very much attached to how the emotions of others make you feel. The cynicism reflects not real indifference but a desperate desire to be superior to the masses, who fall for the jokes. In the irony vortex, many trolls hunger for negative attention as eagerly as normies thirst for acceptance and approval.
Again, none of this is to endorse ideological purity. The world is full of people doing harm to themselves and others with their real, passionate, earnest beliefs. The bloated balloons of their pretensions should punctured by satire, both to bring them down to Earth and because it is funny. Still, we should also be mindful of the dark states of cruelty that such spiralling cynicism leads people to. It can seem like fun and games until people are killed, and that, depressingly, is fun and games to them as well.
This article was originally published on Spectator USA.