Who is responsible for the terrorist attack that killed at least 50 New Zealanders as they prayed in their mosques? Looked at one way, the answer is simple: The shooter alone bears the guilt for his crimes. But the picture is wider than that.
In the days since the attack, attention has rightly been focused on the shooter’s admiration of white supremacists, especially violent ones like Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, whom the shooter called his “true inspiration” and who allegedly gave his “blessing” for the attack. His manifesto called Donald Trump “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” and uses words that directly echo Trump’s own. The discussion can even be expanded to those who have helped shape the U.S. president’s message, like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Donald Trump Jr. It’s not unreasonable to place some measure of blame on those who have stoked the international spread of white-supremacist ideology.
So why do I feel so guilty? And why am I so angry not just at the obvious targets, but at my country?
I’m a white Australian. I know that blaming myself and my cohort is illogical, but I can’t escape the feeling that all of white Australia is implicated in the deaths—a white majority that has fomented and let foment hate. Though he may have labeled himself a European, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant was an Aussie through and through, growing up in a country town north of Sydney, steeped in mainstream Australian racism and our particular national brand of Islamophobia. He grew up in the same Murdoch-controlled mass media environment that the rest of us did—one that recently trashed Islam 2,891 times in a single year—and under the same governments, with prime ministers who have repeatedly stoked anti-Muslim sentiment for votes, with one major party making it central to their electoral strategy.
I grew up steeped in the same environment, just two years younger than Tarrant, and when I was a child the omnipresent racism seemed, well, normal to me. Australia was a proud multicultural country, I was told, but this also seemed to encompass race riots and the turning back of boats filled with brown, black, and Muslim refugees. Publicly demonstrative racists like Australian Sen. Pauline “Please explain” Hanson were a national joke, not a national threat—the refugees were the threat, apparently. These days, as one local from Tarrant’s hometown told the New York Times, “There is still a lot of racism around the place. It’s usually sort of hidden a little bit.”
You could say the same of federal politics, with its coded appeals to white, racist fear—it’s only hidden until suddenly you can’t avoid it. Indeed, many white Aussies will tell you that the persistence of racist tropes is mostly harmless, as many did after the Serena Williams cartoon incident. Australians: We’re just a bunch of fun-loving, cheeky larrikins, right, mate? Well, we can now say that one of the deadliest hate crimes in history was perpetrated by a white Australian. But not just by a white Australian: As Amy Remeikis at the Guardian put it, the massacre was “carried out in the name of white Australia.”
I’ve long felt that racism is Australia’s most serious problem, our “festering sore”—I’ve written about it before. Many other Aussies have also been unsurprised, as I was, to learn that Tarrant was one of ours—but that lack of surprise should be more damning, not less. I have not myself stoked racial resentment, nor did I vote for Sen. Fraser Anning or the governments that made race-baiting appeals. But did I do enough to stop the ideology’s spread? Did I condemn hatred loud enough? Did I fight white supremacy every day? I did not pull the trigger, but it does not feel right to say I bear absolutely none of this national burden.
Shame, guilt, remorse, disgust—whatever you want to call it, I’m not alone. A number of Australian commentators are expressing similar feelings over the actions of “one of our citizens.” We face an overdue and now unavoidable reckoning with the role our anti-immigrant politics and culture played in shaping and normalizing Tarrant’s brand of hate.
What also cannot be ignored is that our citizen went and did this as a guest in another nation. As Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel told CNN: “He did not develop his hatred here. He came here to perform this act of terrorism.” Why did he go to New Zealand if he was an Australian citizen angry about Muslim immigration? Partly it may have been Australia’s strict gun laws; his attack would have been much harder to pull off at home. Tarrant didn’t originally intend to target New Zealand—he was only living there while he “planned and trained”—but he soon decided that New Zealand would “bring to attention the truth of the assault on our civilization, that no where in the world was safe, the invaders were in all of our lands, even in the remotest areas of the world.”
The horror of this attack is compounded by the fact that New Zealand is meant to be our mate—our greener, funnier, more progressive little sibling. There are many clichéd metaphors to describe the special relationship between Australia and New Zealand, and they feel especially meaningless now, but it’s the closest relationship we have. It’s a closeness Tarrant took advantage of, committing his crime in the country that welcomes us without a visa.
We are a nation born of shame. A white-majority Australia exists only as the result of a genocidal invasion—another irony missed by Tarrant (and Trump) in his rants about invasion. It’s an original sin the country has recently grappled with: In 2008, the nation officially apologized to Indigenous Australians for its extreme mistreatment of them, in particular the horrendous policy of taking Indigenous children from their families—“a great stain [on] the nation’s soul,” said the prime minister at the time. Australians have also taken collective responsibility for more local tragedies. Earlier this year when Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe was murdered walking home in Melbourne, Australians were stricken. When her father Saeed came to Australia and took part in a televised interview, presenter Jamila Rizvi told him: “I know I speak for every Australian when we say we’re so sorry that your daughter came to visit us and we didn’t take better care of her.” Following Christchurch, ashamed Australians are apologizing personally to New Zealanders on Twitter.
But what has become clear is that the shame—and the apologies—are no longer enough.
White Australians must no longer tolerate those mainstream voices who give white supremacy a platform and megaphone. Instead of brushing aside the racism in our homeland, or pointing instead toward Trump and the United States, we must call out dog whistles in our own government, in our own backyard, every chance we get. We must condemn hate speech not just when someone like Anning goes “too far,” and we must deny visas to alt-right figures who come to our shores expecting a friendly welcome not just in the wake of right-wing terror attacks, but always. We must fight the normalization of Islamophobia. And above all we must accept responsibility for the hatred we have normalized. Rather than go easy on ourselves, we must go hard. “Resist the urge to blame,” wrote Quillette founder Claire Lehmann. On the contrary, this is exactly when we need to be assigning more blame and scrutinizing the racist swamp from which Tarrant emerged. And we should be wary of those, like Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who would protest this as “politicization.” Jess Dweck satirized this kind of response as: “Please don’t bring politics into this tragedy in which the perpetrator was clearly inspired by my politics.”
You might think that this is all too strong, that placing at least some of the blame on white Australia is a kind of self-centered masochism, that blaming a nation’s culture for the sins of a citizen is like blaming humanity for the crimes of one man. But it’s better than the alternative, of saying “#notallAustralians” and looking the other way, thinking, well, there’s nothing I can do.
White Australians may not be strictly answerable for Tarrant’s crime, but we have some big questions to ask ourselves. If you’re an Australian and reading this makes you feel defensive, you should ask them now.