I can totally understand why New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern stated that she will never utter the name of the Christchurch mass murderer. She declared in a statement to parliament this week that, ‘He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.’
The murderous violence that the terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, inflicted on his victims was designed to gain the maximum publicity. Reports noted that this act of terror was planned with meticulous detail. But it is likely that the gunman devoted as much time and energy towards developing his media strategy as he did his assault on the Christchurch mosques. Many commentators have invested considerable time attempting to interpret and understand his rambling manifesto. What they don’t seem to grasp is that, for Tarrant, the manifesto served the role of a prop. The visuals and the impression he was able to convey were the most important parts of his action.
Tarrant’s main objective was to gain the status of a celebrity through the medium of a terrorist reality show. Unfortunately, the media was unwittingly prepared to assist him in his objective. Initially, media organisations published parts of his live-streamed video and his manifesto. In this febrile context, it is entirely understandable why Ardern took the decision to deprive Tarrant of any additional publicity by not uttering his name. Back in the 1980s, the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was thinking along similar lines when she argued that terrorists should be denied ‘the oxygen of publicity’.
Unfortunately, the refusal to name terrorists is unlikely to undermine the capacity of terrorists to gain publicity. Governments can actually make matters worse by unwittingly cultivating a sense of mystique and power around the persona of a terrorist who cannot be named. Sections of the public will interpret the reluctance to name terrorists as an expression of fear rather than of defiance.
In any case, whether Tarrant realises his objective of gaining fame depends not on whether he is named, but on how society responds to him and his act of terror. Unfortunately, it seems that politicians and the media respond to acts of terror precisely in accordance with the expectations of the terrorists. After the mass murder in Christchurch, the media went on and on about the emotional impact of the crime. It treated its audience as would-be patients in a clinic. Instead of offering simple and straightforward factual accounts, the media speculated about how the lives of those affected would never be the same again, and invited people to share their pain.
Worse still, instead of treating the massacre at Christchurch in its own context, as a specific crime, the media have tended to represent it as part of a growing international problem. No doubt terrorism is a serious problem confronting the world in the 21st century, but it is made all the worse if every single incident perpetrated by a lone wolf or a fame-seeking lunatic is depicted as part of global dynamic. In this way, society provides an ‘oxygen of publicity’ to its own fears. It responds to an act of terror by terrorising itself with fantasies of international plots.
The way to minimise the destructive consequences of Tarrant and other terrorists is to refuse to be terrorised. That means rejecting the script of global terrorist plots. It also means regarding the acts of deranged gunmen as just that – acts of deranged gunmen.