Ideasroom

Don’t let the gunman make his own myth

Eradicating the March 15 gunman from our awareness will enable him to become an icon of hate. Nicholas Agar explains why we don't want to give Brenton Tarrant access to the outside world, but the outside world needs access to him.

New Zealand has handed down its first-ever sentence of life without parole. Brenton Tarrant is now 29. His sentence could reach a long time into our nation’s future.

Winston Peters wants to send Tarrant back to Australia. I think that would be a mistake. Tarrant committed his crimes here. We are stuck with him and it’s up to us how we manage our relationship with our worst-ever murderer. We must take charge of how we remember the Christchurch atrocity. The fact Tarrant laboured over a 74-page ‘manifesto’ as he gathered his guns shows his interest in how he is remembered.

Tarrant wasn’t just mass murdering. He was myth-making. We must disrupt this. To do that, we should avoid the mistakes made by other nations in their confinement of their hate figures.

Tarrant drew inspiration from the murders of the far-right Norwegian Anders Breivik. Breivik killed 77 people on Utoya Island and in Oslo in 2011. His physical circumstances seem quite comfortable. He inhabits three cells, which include his own gym. He has video games and a variety of social contacts with visitors, jailors, lawyers, a priest and medical staff. But he lives in isolation from Norwegians beyond this select group. And that’s a problem.

Did Tarrant, as he planned his murders, entertain fantasies of repeating Breivik’s Nazi salutes in our courtrooms? I would like to think his apparent failure to use his platform is a tribute to the unforgettable power of the three days of victim impact statements. It might suggest there’s still a human being somewhere behind Tarrant’s bland broken exterior.

It’s natural to want to shun those who commit crimes on the scale of Breivik’s and Tarrant’s. Like New Zealand, Norway lacks the death penalty, so they couldn’t just kill him. But Norway’s attempt to eradicate Breivik from the awareness of Norwegians enabled him to become an icon of hate. It’s perfect for the creation of myths that inspire imitators like Tarrant.

In his manifesto, Tarrant claimed to have had “limited access” to “Knight Justiciar Breivik” and to have received “a blessing” for his mission after Breivik had contacted “his brother knights”. These refer to the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order disbanded in the early 1300s. Breivik’s manifesto – at 1515 pages, significantly longer than Tarrant’s – presented himself as a “commander” in the reformed military order.

Norwegian authorities doubted there could have been any contact between the two ‘knights’. But that was clearly no obstacle to Tarrant’s fantasies.

Breivik’s murders made him globally infamous. The inevitable Google searches for ‘Anders Breivik’ lead to many images of him offering Nazi salutes in Norwegian courtrooms. ‘Knight Justiciar’ Breivik looks staunch – a stark contrast with the awkward and embarrassed-looking Norwegian court officials. I look at these images and imagine them groaning, “There he goes again.” But that’s not what Tarrant saw. Breivik’s defiant Nazi salutes are too convenient a peg for murderous far-right fantasies.

Even when there are no images, fantasies can grow. Kiwi white supremacist Philip Arps considers himself connected to World War II Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess. Hess spent much of his life confined in Spandau Prison in Berlin. After he finally died in 1987 of apparent suicide, Spandau was demolished to prevent it from becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. But I imagine Arps sees images of the fortress weak liberal democratic Germany needed to contain this potent force. He didn’t see images of Hess the sad, lonely old man who complained of amnesia and tried often to kill himself.

I suspect what Tarrant most wanted to do as he sat in the courtroom was to be speedily sentenced and sent back to hide in his prison cell. If we are to prevent copycat massacres, it’s important we deny him that privilege.

I think New Zealand is off to a good start with Tarrant. In the Christchurch courtroom, he looked broken, a physically diminished version of the man apprehended on 15 March 2019.

Did Tarrant, as he planned his murders, entertain fantasies of repeating Breivik’s Nazi salutes in our courtrooms? I would like to think his apparent failure to use his platform is a tribute to the unforgettable power of the three days of victim impact statements. It might suggest there’s still a human being somewhere behind Tarrant’s bland broken exterior.

I suspect what Tarrant most wanted to do as he sat in the courtroom was to be speedily sentenced and sent back to hide in his prison cell. If we are to prevent copycat massacres, it’s important we deny him that privilege. We don’t want to give Tarrant access to the outside world. But the outside world needs access to him.

Many of the immensely powerful victim impact statements were pointedly directed at Tarrant. I think the survivors have the right to choose how they engage with him in the years to come. How is Tarrant coming to terms with his destruction of their loved ones?

After Tarrant’s sentencing, Farid Ahmed, who lost his wife Husna in the attacks, expressed an interest in meeting the terrorist in person to ask why he murdered his wife. It’s a reasonable request.

Conversations with Ahmed could remind Tarrant of the rightness of his punishment. An insight about punishment that comes from the German philosopher Georg Hegel helps here.

It is tempting to view Tarrant as an animal heedless of reason. Hegel would insist we punish him as a rational being and not an animal. For Hegel, “the criminal himself in effect authorises and demands his own punishment”.

Tarrant will have a lot of time to think about his crimes. If he forgets details, some survivors might want to remind him.

We will never forget Tarrant and it’s dangerous to try. He’ll forever be just a Google search away. Suppose internet searches reveal evidence of a cult growing up around ‘Knight Justiciar Tarrant’. Survivors who choose to engage with him can tell us how he’s really getting on. If they want to post a photo or two of the actual Brenton Tarrant in 2025, that could also disrupt the terrorist’s toxic myth-making.

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