July 17, 2019

New Zealand Murders: There Are No Words

AHC Senior Rabbi Natti Friedler pays his respects at a makeshift memorial outside the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In 1915, Ottoman Turks started to scapegoat the minority Armenians in their country for a war against Russia that it was losing. That year, Turks began rousting Armenians from their dwellings and marching them to their deaths in the Syrian Desert.

At the time, there was no word for this brutal campaign, which resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians living in Turkey. It took three more decades and the extermination of 6 million Jews before the word “genocide” entered the lexicon.

On March 15 in New Zealand, the world witnessed the latest expression of another horrific innovation for which there isn’t yet an appropriate word. Yes, the attack by a 28-year-old suspect that resulted in the gun deaths of 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, was a mass shooting. Yes, it was an act of terrorism. Yes, the alleged gunman self-identifies as a fascist.

There is commonality between this incident in New Zealand and other recent acts. White supremacy is the connective tissue that binds Brenton Tarrant and his atrocities in Christchurch to the 11 Jewish worshippers slain by Robert Bowers in October at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the nine African-American congregants who were fatally gunned down in 2015 by Dylann Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

We need to be aware that underlying each of these attacks is an ambition to exterminate members of these races and religions. The victims’ backgrounds vary. The intent is the same. It’s a genocidal idea, but without the power of government to facilitate the act. The genocides committed by the Nazis, the Hutu leadership of Rwanda, the military of Guatemala and the government of Turkey were acts carried out by the state under ideologically driven leaders.

“Leaders need to take bold steps to counter the spread of hatred.”

The more recent 21st-century nightmares that befell Christchurch, Pittsburgh and Charleston, S.C., were executed by do-it-yourself mass killers whose racial resentments had been whipped up by extremist media outlets and nurtured in echo chambers in dark corners of the internet. They answer to no head of state and are unconfined by geographical boundaries. But they draw from the same genocidal well of hatred.

We are perplexed by this type of killing because we have not seen anything quite like it before and with such regularity. It may be that this form of killing doesn’t need a name, but I refer to it as “aliocide” — killing of the other — picking out innocent people who broadly represent a particular hated group, and slaughtering them indiscriminately because of their association to that group. 

The danger, in my mind, isn’t that white supremacists are going to succeed at rounding up and killing all of the Muslims, Jews and people of color, or that radical Islamists have any reasonable chance of taking down the “Great Satan” that they believe characterizes the West. Rather, it’s that they will succeed in driving us apart from one another with fear, because fear is the fertile soil of hatred itself. These horrible events are designed to drive us apart. Resisting them means having the strength to come together.

Solutions? 

Tech companies and the intelligence apparatus of Western governments must treat white nationalism with the same seriousness they reserve for Islamic terrorism, recognizing its lethal threat.

Lawmakers and thought-leaders — on the left and the right — need to fully acknowledge the trend of rising anti-Semitism and take action that reflects an understanding that this form of hate is genocidal to its core.

Academic institutions need to focus on the hate that thrives on campus and online, and unequivocally counter it within their communities.

World leaders need to take bold steps to counter the spread of hatred. Turning a blind eye to it is all that is needed to prompt the most unhinged members of online communities to rain bullets into unsuspecting groups of people, whoever they are.


Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.