Terror in Chch

Retaliation? A question we should not ask

Queries of retaliation should be recognised as insidious - that those who suffered most should now be feared, writes the University of Auckland's Nicholas Rowe

Last Friday’s horrific shooting in Christchurch has led to an overwhelming number of questions; about the event, the causes of the event, and ultimately about the impact of the event. These questions are a normal reaction as we grapple to understand something so out of place and so harmful. 

Soon these questions will crystalise into statements and then into actions, which will enable us all to feel something has been done to address the anomalous nature of this event. This is why these questions matter, and deserve reflective scrutiny. But one particular question I heard is deeply problematic. It was asked by a journalist at the first news conference with the Prime Minister, and I have heard it asked in more quiet conversations: Will there be violent retaliation?

This question does not belong for three reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it expresses a double-standard at the root of these events. This question was not asked when a 21-year-old white supremacist murdered nine elderly Christian worshippers in Charleston in 2015, or when a 46-year old white supremacist murdered 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh last year. Pundits may be quick to argue that Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists do not do such acts of violent retribution, but that Muslims do. 

However, this view ignores recent history, from Oklahoma to Israel to Myanmar to India to Peru, filled with examples of retributive terror perpetrated in the name of all manner of ideologies. The assumption within this retaliation question is therefore that Muslims are more likely to retaliate with vengeful bloodlust, and that Muslims should be regarded as a dangerous ‘other’ within New Zealand.  This allows the questioner to transfer fear, from those that suffered, to those with a prejudice about the group that suffered. By appropriating victimhood in this way, our society can be propelled into cycles of imagined retribution.

This opens the second reason why ‘retaliation’ questions are so problematic: they reward the perpetrator of Friday’s massacre (and those online shadows that support his actions) by extending his rationalisation. As the perpetrator has stated, this event was a perceived crusade, a wider race war promoted by white supremacy philosophies. Their goals of segregation, exclusion and social hierarchy rely upon belief in an ‘other side’ that they need to battle (preemptively or retaliatory) to morally justify their actions. But there is no such ‘other side’ in New Zealand, so questions that presume there is, legitimises perpetrator violence.

At times like these, the questions we ask ourselves in private and public deserve reflective scrutiny. Yes, we should question if our society is at risk of more attacks by enraged and deluded individuals. But we should call out those questions that slow down meaningful discussion, and set us down a path towards blaming the victims.

Finally, this question is deeply problematic because it diminishes the support extended to the Muslim community across New Zealand. It taints empathy with the Muslim community and implies sympathetic responses should be motivated and measured by self-concern and desire to mitigate social fractures. But this sits in stark contrast to sincere outpourings of public grief and solidarity, from across all sectors of New Zealand.  Expressions of compassion are taking place across the country, from leadership statements, to give-a-little pages, to checking in with a colleague at work. These expressions have not occurred as a cynical form of bartering, but from a sense that we are all in this together. Venting concerns about retaliation emphasises supposed differences, denies our common humanity, and hypothesises that our cross-cultural interactions might be just measured exchanges.

We can anticipate consequences from this event, but not retaliation. The perpetrator (and any associates) will face legal penalties. Laws and policing procedures will be changed to limit such an event reoccurring. These are not retaliations, or petty acts of vengeance, but rational decisions of a reflexive society. We might also anticipate deluded individuals will appropriate suffering of victims and their families in Christchurch, and use this event to express their own self-righteous anger. This is also not a retaliation, just as the perpetrator scrawling names on his weaponry is not a retribution. It is simply appropriation of victimhood for a personal agenda. 

Queries of retaliation should therefore be recognised as insidious: that those who suffered most should now be feared. Such a question promotes one of the most challenging fears of the 21st century: pistanthrophobia - a fear of trusting others. 

For these reasons, our current questions need to be considered carefully, so they are not so loaded with assumptions that the actual query is buried within a desire to express our own prejudice. But we do need to maintain dialogue on these events, and keep asking questions. As an academic, I specialise in postgraduate research methods, and teach students the importance of exploring all sorts of questions, so that they can take their research curiosity into unchartered territory. Central to this process is critical analysis of what a question means and why we might want to ask it, so that we can identify useful questions that reveal answers of value to society. 

So at times like these, the questions we ask ourselves in private and public deserve reflective scrutiny. Yes, we should question if our society is at risk of more attacks by enraged and deluded individuals. But we should call out those questions that slow down meaningful discussion, and set us down a path towards blaming the victims.

Nicholas Rowe is an Associate Professor in Dance Studies and the director of 'Dancing7Cities', a documentary feature film that explores how refugees and other marginalised groups have used dance to reclaim a sense of belonging in diverse cities around the world.

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