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Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch attack

  • April 11th, 2019

I cannot fault the government’s choice of Judge to chair this Commission. Sir William Young has all that we could hope for in a Commission intended to reassure us that the establishment is genuinely trying to learn from a shocking event. He has earned respect from deep experience, broad interests and imagination, humanity, and common sense. With some courage he has resisted group think on legal fashions.

He was the obvious choice to lead and transform our seriously disappointing Supreme Court. Perhaps he turned the Chief Justice-ship down.

But the Commission’s work could be compromised from the start. A glaring omission from the terms of reference is any requirement for a careful, honest, politically non-partisan examination of what turned the loner into a killer.  The Commission should outline key ways that ordinary people can play their essential part in defeating the “radicalization” that may have produced him. It should be able to show us what we are up against in countering the temptations to others for similar villainy.

I do not see a suitable term of reference in the following:’

The Commission will look at:

  • The individual’s activities before the attack, including:
  • Relevant information from his time in Australia;
  • His arrival and residence in New Zealand;
  • His travel within New Zealand, and internationally;
  • How he obtained a gun licence, weapons and ammunition;
  • His use of social media and other online media; 
  • His connections with others, whether in New Zealand or internationally; 
  • What relevant state sector agencies knew about this individual and his activities before this attack; what actions (if any) they took in light of that knowledge; and whether there were any additional measures that the agencies could have taken to prevent the attack;
  • Whether there were any impediments to relevant state sector agencies gathering or sharing information relevant to the attack, or acting upon such information, including legislative impediments, and
  • Whether there was any inappropriate concentration or priority setting of counter terrorism resources by relevant state sector agencies prior to this attack.

This is all about the admin. It does not ask the “why?” and the “how do we eliminate the appeal of this type of nihilism or anarchy?”

Already the event has been appropriated for political ends – for example by those who have long wanted to vilify and suppress “hate speech” (beliefs and views they don’t like).

The history of terrorism, over hundreds of years, shows the relative failures of  official suppression measures (police, surveillance, lists of forbidden organisations, use of informers and other state apparatus). Countries that have relied mainly on  force and policing have  created recruitment conditions for permanent violence (albeit low level if the policing is effective).

Countries with our inherited freedoms instead became unfruitful soil for terrorism. Trusted leaders confidently informed and engaged a trusted citizenry. The mass of people trusted that political processes would work, according to the ground rules, even if they bitterly mistrusted some groups in their midst. They may have disagreed profoundly on some things, but they united against violent politics. In our countries terrorism became largely “unthinkable”.

Extremism has an undeniable appeal to idealists. It sometimes has intellectual seduction. In high trust countries those temptations are directly confronted. In genuine free speech societies people were  equipped by frank public debate, bold literature, evocative theatre, and traditions of intense religious and academic disputation, to refute arguments, to expose, exclude and isolate would be killers, and to suck any honour or drama out of their  status. They were not told the obvious lie “we are one” or that they must respect those whose values or culture they detested. But they got the message from every quarter – we will all unite against you if you try violence.

To do that now in New Zealand, to understand and to denounce and mock and neutralize  the killer’s melodrama we need to know that our leaders are not taking advantage of  our ignorance. We need to know that they are not exploiting the situation to seize more power for their own causes.

A trusted Royal Commission should therefore have been charged expressly with fully exposing the killer’s political motives, particularly the parts which could entice other unhappy young men to similar views. It should have been asked to explain how best to rebut and to discredit them.

And those motives, or at least the killer’s own grandiose view of them are set out in clear, painful detail in the now hidden manifesto.

It is faulty logic to think that because the killer found it physically easy to prepare and carry out his “mission” here, if we only make the same mission harder we will prevent a recurrence.  Generals fighting their last war. Dedicated terrorists/anarchists, willing to die or spend life in prison to advance their political agenda, have always found a way, be it arson, bomb, gun, vehicle, plane, poison etc.  Even in highly militarised police states.  Focusing solely on his particular “ways and means” – preparations, materials and communications – gives ample opportunity to advance current political agendas, but may do little to make anyone safer.

There is good research to show that guns are not the most deadly terrorist tool. Bombs are more effective. Yet already the NZ public have been diverted (as it is clear the terrorist intended) into debate over gun licencing as if the law change would have affected his ability to achieve his ends. His manifesto shows his awareness that explosives would normally be used but he chose guns to generate just the government reaction we have seen.

I do not believe that the Chief Censor’s decision to suppress the manifesto was a conspiracy to allow a free run for the politically opportunist gun law move. But it will most certainly be fuelling conspiracy and “outsider” views among the types that were never going to respect the gag.

The aim of terrorists/anarchists is to provoke Government overreaction, of precisely the sort NZ may be moving towards, to raise the consciousness of their chosen “oppressed”.  Sometimes they succeed in that (anarchists, communists, ISIS), sometimes the “oppressed” aren’t interested and they fail (Manson family, Red Army Faction).  But the unfortunate truth may be that there is no reliable method of preventing or protecting against these low frequency attacks whilst their political motivations remain unexamined and unanswered.

If political motivations are not examined carefully and honestly, the Royal Commission may bog us all down in crying over spilt administrative milk, hind sight wisdom and opportunities to settle political scores.



  • Doug
  • April 17th, 2019
  • 8:39 pm

The signal failure is the deliberate exclusion of the Arms Act Amendments from Judicial scrutiny. The entire shambling mess is an uncharted maze of contradictions on opaque verbalese which will take a very long time to untangle. The Simple 1983 Arms Act has once again been ‘amended’ into a complex web of prohibitions which firearms owners are left to flounder in alone.


She said a royal commission, which are independent inquiries and are usually reserved for matters of the greatest public importance, was an appropriate response to the attack.

  • Don McKenzie
  • April 30th, 2019
  • 2:34 pm

I wish I had read your essay earlier Stephen.The real task for a Royal Commission is a study of Political Islam. The shooter (Tarrant)had visited Europe and in particular Turkey, I understand more than once. He became aware of Ottoman Muslim history and related that to what is happening in Europe currently. Revenge was the driver of his actions. Names of Balkan Christian martyrs on his rifle magazines and the UN Global Compact for Migration written on another linked his thoughts on history to the present. Having studied Political Islam for some time I consider it to be the greatest threat to our culture that the Western World will ever experience. Not Nazism, not Communism but Islam.

  • Jim Rose
  • May 21st, 2019
  • 5:51 pm

FBI has a lot of experience with right wing terrorists. Lone wolves hard to catch.

Social media would be a big help to FBI because these idiots crawl out from under their rocks and can be identified and watched.

  • Tauhei Notts
  • July 12th, 2019
  • 10:00 pm

Come on Stephen.
Three months without a contribution.
Lift your game!

  • Mike Mckee
  • July 15th, 2019
  • 5:14 pm

Good Summation.
But Stephen The Chairwoman of the Committee that changed the Arms act on 20th Dec 2018, declared “she didn’t know how people could get guns like that in NZ”?

Hiding the whys and wherefores is ludicrous and facile as it adds nothing to the conversation and denies the populace to be aware for the future.

I do sometimes wonder if there are any adults in the Beehive at present.

  • Mike Mckee
  • July 15th, 2019
  • 5:19 pm

ohh apologies I forgot,
The NZPolice Hierarchy/Senior Management’s actions in using that same committee’s actions and changes on 20th Dec 2019.
To disestablish 97 personel who should have been available for Face 2 Face interviews with gun applicants under the old system, needs to be carefully examined.

Was it for money considerations only or to free up “desk wallahs” for front line work too?

  • Helen
  • December 8th, 2020
  • 3:58 pm

But isn’t he a radical greenie who targeted Muslims because they have lots of children which he said is bad for the environment. And he also said in his manifesto that he hated Trump and admired communist China. I remember all this being commented on the radio in the first few hours of the shooting before the manifesto was taken off the internet and banned. It really frustrates me to hear him constantly referred to as a right wing nationalist when that clearly wasn’t his main motivation. I know what I heard and I heard an interview with Steven Franks by broadcaster Leighton Smith where he talked about the same thing.

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