In the latest episode of horrifying shock-murders a white Australian man opened fire last week on a mosque-full of Islamic worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. The murderer, a savvy media manipulator, filmed himself performing the massacre and uploaded a lengthy manifesto detailing his allegiance to various and sundry features of the White Supremacy movement. If nothing else is said about these events, then at least we must admit that in our age we have entered into a new world of evil.
Media responses have been, as usual, swift and condemnatory. The perpetrator was quickly labelled a terrorist, and media engines shifted into overdrive to minimize and mask his platform. If the logic was to perform a mass murder to gain attention to his platform, then the media is, in this case, muzzling his manifesto, and working hard to restrict access to the video. (Full disclosure: I have neither read the manifesto nor watched the video.)
Let’s admit, before all else, that this is a horrifying situation, and that the perpetrator’s actions are justly condemned by all right-thinking people. You shouldn’t murder people. You shouldn’t murder people while filming yourself murdering people. And you shouldn’t murder people while filming yourself murdering them as if the murders were a kind of video game with a soundtrack. What is more, you shouldn’t attempt to justify your actions by means of lengthy equivocations. There is nothing good about either what the perpetrator wanted, or how he proceeded in his plan.
At the same time, I confess that I am unsettled. Above all else, I am unsettled by certain features of how media coverage operates, even in their muzzling, counter-intuitive narrative. To explain this, consider two faces.
This first is the face of Nick Sandmann, a Catholic high school student, who is—quite apart from his planning—brought awkwardly face to face with a Native American activist named Nathan Phillips. The other image is of William Connolly, smashing an egg on the head of Australian senator Fraser Anning. Both images have caught the attention of the media. Both images have evoked strong emotional responses.
The image of Sandmann, with his MAGA hat and “smug” face, invited the vitriol of the media world. This, they argued, is what is wrong with America. Disrespectful teens, smirking in the face of a peaceful Native American elder. A MAGA hat—the emblematic sign of modern racism!—sneering in its own right down on a person from whom Americans long ago robbed America. Condemnation—and hate—was swift. This was a boy who should be punched in the face. This Catholic school breeds hate. MAGA supporters are all closet white supremacists, and so forth.
Of course, the truth came out eventually. The boy wasn’t being aggressive, but he and his classmates had been the recipients of substantial aggression from a group of Black Israelites, who had been hurling abuse at them for some time. The Nathan Phillips had arrived to “make peace,” but had done it awkwardly—walking up to and making eye contact with Sandmann, who was just a bystander—and as a result Sandmann’s face wasn’t smug so much as uncomfortable. He was an awkward teen, caught in an incredibly awkward moment, and the world witnessed his awkwardness and was all too ready to caption it with its own preferred labels. In this circumstance, the label of ‘hate.’
This second image, of Connolly smashing an egg on a Senator’s head, has been met—as far as I can tell—with universal acclaim. Senator Anning had written a letter, outlining his belief that there were, indeed, real immigration problems, and real cultural divides between Islam and the West. Connolly’s timing is admittedly poor, and his judgments may be flawed, but you don’t have to agree with him to recognize that he has a right to his opinion, and a responsibility as a senator, even, to share it. People, knowing how he thinks, elected him after all. But in response, here we have another teenaged boy, this time with a camera to record his own actions, and an egg to smash on Connolly’s head. And this time, the boy’s actions are acclaimed. He’s a hero. He deserves a scholarship.
In the one circumstance, we have a boy who has done, literally, nothing, and is deserving of pure hatred because he is associated with things the media dislikes. As a result, he ought to be punched in the face. On the other side, we have a boy who has done something stupid (and let’s admit that filming yourself doing things like this is stupid), who does indeed get punched in the face, but who is really deserving of adulation because he is associated with things the media likes.
Here we come to why I am unsettled. These two faces of hatred display, in a unique way, the unbelievable power that the media holds to sway and shape our opinions. It’s okay to hate X, it’s praiseworthy to love those who egg the representatives of X. It’s okay to hate the people we don’t like. Narratives, context, motivations, impact—none of these factors matter. Only the manifestation of hatred and ready judgment.
Governments reacting to terrorism is the object of terrorism. One of the governing tenets of the pseudo-right, (semi-)white supremacist movement, is that the media controls perception. The belief that the media lies to me is the catalyst for so much of the emotional content which gives rise to these manifestations of hatred and xenophobia. And when the media pulls these kinds of stunts, they are proved right.
Several years ago I accidentally (and I mean it!) joined an alt-right group on Facebook. I’ve never commented or participated in the group, but I watch, and listen, and attend to what makes them tick. The group is sizeable, with something close to 80K members—so this isn’t exactly a fringe group. Their response to these killings has been pretty sickening, and I won’t go into all of it, but two predominant features emerge: first, they believe that the media coverage has universally prevaricated on the story of Islam in New Zealand, and second, they want to incite further Islamic retaliation, to aggravate the hornet’s nest further, so that, perhaps, the West might ‘wake up’ and respond. Whether their vision is right or wrong, evil or not, this attack, and the media coverage, fulfils either outcome they desire. And that might be the most unsettling thought of all.