Stephen Daisley

The new banality of evil

The terrorist’s radicalisation appears to have been entirely digital

The new banality of evil
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‘Remember, lads: Subscribe to PewDiePie.’ With these words, the killer began broadcasting his slaughter of 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, live on the internet — and a new form of terrorism was born.

For those unfamiliar with internet subculture, PewDiePie is a Brighton-based videogames blogger whose YouTube channel, the largest in the world, is known for its politically incorrect humour. His crown is about to be snatched by T-Series, a Bollywood music channel. The rivalry has sparked the ‘War against T-Series’ — online gamers all speak like semi-ironic Dr Strangeloves — in which PewDiePie’s ‘Bro Army’ of adolescent fanboys pull off stunts of varying taste and legality to win their idol more subscribers.

The Christchurch killer was framing his massacre like another light-hearted stunt, tapping into PewDiePie’s 90 million subscribers to maximise the audience for his message. That mass murder could be carried out as a comedy routine is too gruesome to imagine but the terrorist, in his grimly referential style if not his crimes, reveals himself to be a product of that pungent culture of trolling, banter, lad irony and vaunting cynicism that defines life online.

The 20th century saw the world confront what Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem called the banality of evil. The 21st century is introducing us to an evil that is performative and attuned to the language of internet memes and in-jokes. Even as the Christchurch gunman appeared in court charged with murder, he flashed the ‘OK’ gesture appropriated by the white nationalist web.

Some reporting of Friday’s terror attack comes perilously close to ‘the internet made him do it’ moral panic. But no causal link between violent popular culture and real-world brutality has ever been proved. Charles Manson was convinced lyrics from the White Album were alerting him to an impending race war, but that doesn’t mean the Beatles shared any culpability for his crimes.

Psychotics and psychopaths used to be solitary and unconnected, fixating on trash books and trash thinkers. Now they can talk to one another and inspire one another. The terrorist attacks on Masjid Al Noor and the Linwood Islamic Centre were planned and executed with shareability in mind. The crime was foreshadowed on 8chan, an anything-goes chat forum, by an anonymous post from the killer, who wrote: ‘Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real-life effort post. I will carry out and attack against the invaders.’ ‘Shitposting’ is disrupting online discussion with irrelevant or inflammatory memes.

The post contained a link to the Facebook livestream on which the shooting was then broadcast. The soundtrack included ‘Serbia Strong/Remove Kebab’, a pro-Radovan Karadzic anthem, and the killer described himself as a ‘kebab removalist’ — a Serbian euphemism for someone ethnically cleansing Turks and other Muslims. The stream also included close-ups of his weapons, on which had been graffitied references to past slayings of Muslims. To the world, last Friday was an atrocity. To the man responsible, it was viral marketing.

For lone-wolf terrorists — small men with big guns — the massacre is the message and spree killings are often accompanied by a manifesto. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, threatened to continue killing until the Washington Post and New York Times published his 35,000-word broadside against modernity. The Norwegian white nationalist Anders Breivik said the motivation behind his 2011 attacks was to draw attention to his 1,500-page manifesto.

The Christchurch gunman left behind his own manifesto, entitled ‘The Great Replacement’, which regurgitates far-right conspiracy theories about shadowy elites working to supplant the West’s white majority population with immigrants and refugees. Muslims are ‘invaders’ colonising their host society and being allowed to do so by weak, post-racial liberals. There are some curious echoes. A worldwide conspiracy and powerful puppet--masters. A minority group imperilling national cohesion through infiltration. Innocent children sacrificed by inhuman outsiders. The target was Muslims but the tropes are textbook anti-Semitism.

Social media makes it easy to share a racist screed with a global audience. The Christ-church killer’s technique was especially clever because his manifesto contained a series of written triggers, designed so that journalists would set his message rippling throughout the world. His claim that the black pro-Trump activist Candace Owens ‘has influenced me above all’ was one such provocation, presumably intended to escalate the culture war between American progressives and nationalists.

The Christchurch killer’s radicalisation, unlike that of some who have gone before, appears to have been entirely digital. Where Breivik slipped through the net despite leaving a physical trail, purchasing fertiliser and firearms, this lone troll terrorist left almost no offline trail.

So how to catch the next one? Scroll through 8chan and you will encounter thousands of posts hailing the perpetrator as a hero and mocking up footage of his massacre as, among other things, Pokemon Go gameplay. It sends a message to other would-be mass murderers: that this is the way to achieve infamy.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has the right idea in pledging never to speak the murderer’s name. He killed for notoriety and to deny him that notoriety makes him a failure. ‘Obliterate his name and his memory’, runs an old Jewish curse.

Memory should be reserved for the dead. For Naeem Rashid, who died tackling the terrorist; Daoud Nadi, who placed himself in the gunman’s path; and Hosne Ahmed, shot trying to save her disabled husband. Their memory should not be overshadowed.

Stephen Daisley is a regular contributor to Coffee House, the Spectator’s blog.