The terrorist attacks on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in New Zealand, which so far have killed 49 people and led to dozens more injuries, are only the latest in anti-Muslim right-wing violence that is plaguing many democracies around the world. The terrorist was apparently an Australian who traveled to New Zealand to send a message to Muslim migrants that no place is safe.
We should be careful about rushing to judgment on any of the particulars as some of our initial information is undoubtedly wrong, and so much is incomplete. However, here are some of my initial thoughts as we learn more about this horrific violence.
1First, words have consequences. The demonization of Muslim communities, often by politicians who later act shocked and angry when violence occurs, contributes to societal polarization and inspires violence. Britain’s Boris Johnson offered the traditional “thoughts and prayers” after the attack, but had previously written that women dressed in a burqa look like “bank robbers.” Incredibly, after the shooting, right-wing Australia Senator Fraser Anning claimed, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Terrorists feed on this polarization and seek to worsen it.
2Second, security services and government institutions must prioritize white nationalist and other forms of right-wing terrorism. In the United States, right-wing violence has grown, with Jews and Muslims in particular being targets. The Trump administration has cut programs focusing on right-wing groups even amid a growing threat. Given the recent decline in jihadi violence in the United States, transferring some resources is appropriate. Similarly, ensuring immigrant integration is vital. In contrast to Europe, the American Muslim community regularly cooperates with law enforcement. Ideally, the president would press state and local officials to continue and expand their work with Muslim communities, not just to stop radicalism in their ranks but also to protect them from right-wing extremists.
3Third, leadership can matter in a crisis, particularly when backed with action. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s immediate declaration about the Muslim victims—“they are us”—is an excellent beginning and shows how a leader can use a tragedy to bring a reeling country together. To go beyond rhetoric, Ardern should ask New Zealanders to accept more Muslim migrants to show that violence not only fails but will backfire.
4Fourth, social media companies need to treat right-wing terrorism with the same seriousness they treat jihadi violence. The gunman posted apparently links to a right-wing manifesto on 8chan and Twitter, used a helmet camera to livestream his attack via Facebook, and otherwise exploited social media to spread the word. To their credit, most of the major companies are working hard to take down the content and prevent it from spreading. But this is not enough. The major companies have a robust set of policies in place to try to take down and limit jihadi content: Similar methods need to be employed for other, equally lethal, forms of hate like anti-Muslim, racist, and anti-Semitic violence. Countermessaging programs that divert users from violent content to messages that question and undermine hatred, such as the one Jigsaw and its partners designed for the Islamic State, should also be applied in a white nationalist context.
5Finally, many forms of right-wing terrorism are international terrorism, drawing on international networks, ideas, and personalities from around the world. An Australian traveling to New Zealand to attack mosques is one example. Moreover, that Australian drew on the radical ideas and actions of Norwegian Anders Breivik. He also claimed to admire President Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” and in particular Black Lives Matter critic Candace Owens. Similarly, neo-Nazi groups like the Atomwaffen Division have international chapters. As Mary McCord and Jason Blazakis argue, the international connections allow the United States to designate it as a foreign terrorist organization and use this legal power to try to uproot the organization. The domestic-foreign distinction should not be a barrier to understanding or action.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.