A frequent complaint heard from Muslim communities in recent years has been irritation and anger over any suggestion that Muslims – as a whole – need to apologise for attacks carried out in the name of their religion. I have sympathy for this irritation, tying as it does innocent people to the actions of guilty ones. But since the attack in New Zealand was carried out by a non-Muslim who was targeting Muslims, whether or not it needs to be said still it should be said – indeed must be said – that non-Muslims abhor, are disgusted, outraged and sickened by somebody going into a place of worship and gunning down innocent people. We condemn it in the most fulsome and unreserved terms. In what world of sickness do you have to live to think that shooting a child or an adult is a legitimate response to any claim or grievance, real or imagined?
Apart from the gunman himself, it isn’t clear that anyone else is responsible for the massacre. But that hasn’t stopped all manner of people on social media seeking to apportion blame – in a way that suggests that they had their list of culprits ready long before this heinous act.
Perhaps because of some remaining awareness of libel laws, this has not crossed over into mainstream publications. But those on British social media currently being claimed to have instructed a terrorist to go into a New Zealand mosque include Melanie Phillips, Boris Johnson, Rod Liddle, David Aaronovitch, Sajid Javid, The Times, Julia Hartley-Brewer and me. Those compiling lists in the US have tended to favour blaming Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Chelsea Clinton. I will get back in a moment to expressing the unutterable contempt I have towards the people playing this game.
These attributions of blame have been published by prominent commentators, a member of the House of Lords and an academic from King’s College London. Some are additionally targeting journalists accused merely of ‘refusing’ to name names and denounce colleagues. I have pointed out here before the dumbfounding double-standard at work in such moments.
But let me pause for a moment to play this the other way around. Imagine if after any Islamist atrocity of recent years (or after the next one) I or anybody else decided to hold specific British journalists and members of the House of Lords personally responsible for the massacre. Or claim that the dead are only dead because of (say) The Guardian, because they once published an opinion piece from Osama bin Laden, and that if anybody wants to make their feelings felt they might head to that organ’s offices immediately after chasing certain members from the House of Lords. I wouldn’t do it myself, because I retain some respect for standards of truth and evidence when it comes to such serious accusations (as I mentioned here the other week). Yet perhaps others will become keen to attribute such guilt after the next Islamist atrocity now that the new rules are clear.
There was a demonstration of how low this has gone in New York on Friday, where a vigil to commemorate the dead of New Zealand was attended by a pregnant Chelsea Clinton. There a left-wing activist decided to accuse Chelsea Clinton on video of being personally responsible for inspiring the sort of terror that took place in New Zealand. One reason why I continue to insist on the differences between the terms ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘Islamophobia’ was demonstrated here. Chelsea Clinton was accused of causing the New Zealand massacre because she recently criticised Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s expressions of anti-Semitism. Here we get to a rub. We might agree that there are some people who are motivated by hatred of Muslims: the terrorist in Christchurch clearly was. But the merest criticism of Ilhan Omar for anti-Semitism gets described as ‘Islamophobia’ and thus an act of incitement to do the sort of thing that happened in New Zealand. How is one to get out of this illogical whirlpool? By being exceedingly exact about terms. However, let me park this argument for another time. Fifty people are dead and there are non-definitional arguments that require more urgent attention.
Firstly let me say this. If you are going to accuse specific public figures of being somehow responsible for a mass slaying, there are only two things you can be doing. The first is hoping that people do not read the terrorist’s manifesto and just believe your lies. The alternative is that you force people to read the shooter’s manifesto and then realise that you are lying, since none of the public figures mentioned above is mentioned in the manifesto.
Millions of people have read the writers mentioned and listened to the politicians and broadcasters, and of those millions only this man in New Zealand has been inspired to murder. And then it turns out that he hasn’t even praised or in any way cited any of the people featured above. However to even engage in this game is to pretend that the shooter’s manifesto is a serious document that must be taken at face value.
If you are going to do that then you are going to have to be honest. The manifesto’s contents include exhortations to a form of fascism the terrorist calls ‘Green nationalism’. So if you want to take down everything praised in the manifesto you’re going to have to go for the Green movement as an accomplice to murder. The terrorist also cites some poetry (Dylan Thomas and W.E. Henley) as well as Nelson Mandela. So again, we’re going to have to lose a certain amount of poetry as well as one of the 20th century’s great moral heroes if we go down this path.
But most fascinating is that the shooter cites Candace Owens as an inspiration. Over recent days the media has gone huge on this. Some readers will know that Owens is a prominent young black Republican Trump supporter, who is also one of the leaders of the student activist group Turning Point. In his manifesto the shooter says that he wants to credit Owens in particular for inspiring him. I am told by a colleague that this is a meme on far-right message boards associated with the ‘alt-right’ who like to troll Turning Point (who they hate for being pro-Israel, among other things) by endlessly, mockingly tipping their hat to them. The fact that the shooter says what he says about Candace Owens, and says that he knows that he must disavow some of her more extreme statements [his view] reads to me like a very clear attempt to target Candace Owens, whom he clearly hates. He wishes to send the mob after her. I am sorry to say that I think people have been played for suckers here, and the media have fallen into one of the traps that the killer laid for them.
One final point in closing. Among the multiple ‘inspirations’ carved on the terrorist’s gun were the words ‘for Rotherham’. This is being used by some people as an example not just of the shooter’s motives but of the iniquity of the journalists and writers (especially at The Times) who have at any point written about the rape abuse scandals there.
So here is a thought. The people bestriding social media blaming people who have written about Rotherham or related atrocities seem to be under the impression that some chunk of the general public is ready and primed for similar acts of terror. They think that shutting down discussion now would stop such atrocities being repeated. I wonder if they would consider a different possibility? Which is that rather than inciting acts of violent rage by discussing such issues, it is possible that the organs willing to break the silence may in fact be engaged in defusing a societal problem rather than exacerbating it.