Opinion: recent acts of extreme right-wing violence are rooted in a long history of beliefs and grievances, but are also very much a product of the here and now

Brenton Harrison Tarrant is the latest right-wing extremist to carry out a major terrorist attack, but this is not an isolated event. In the past 12 months, we have seen an increase in far-right killings and a rise in far-right extremism on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the UK, referrals to the de-radicalisation program Channel for issues related to the extreme right wing (XRW) have increased by over a third. In the United States, terrorist killings during 2018 were overwhelmingly linked to the extreme right wing. In Ireland, violence linked to an extreme right wing terrorist ideology has not been reported, though anti-fascist groups and the Garda have noted an increase in online activity aimed at an Irish audience.

The nature of the online material mirrors that contained in the manifesto published online by the Christchurch attacker. The main focus of these sites is anti-immigrant and racist commentary, but they also promote the conspiracy theory that white genocide is a government plan that aims to replace white Irish people with immigrants. Worryingly, this is the main idea contained in Tarrant’s document. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Cathy O'Sullivan, Head of Digital at Newshub in New Zealand, on the announcement of an immediate ban on assault weapons

While it is important to understand the nature of extreme right-wing adherents in various countries, the reality is that national borders are largely irrelevant to the spread of an ideology. Extreme right-wing individuals are not located in any particular geographic location, but exist as subcultures on the internet.

This became painfully apparent when we consider the content of Tarrant’s manifesto and his commentary in the attack video; he was speaking to a very particular internet audience using coded language, irony, memes and referencing previous extreme right-wing terrorists. His live streaming of the violence was only partially aimed at the media (his Q&A aimed to serve these needs), but the rest of his communications strategy was directed at like-minded individuals who would circulate it via blog sites, chatrooms and the dark web.  

The web has long been known to harbour extremists of every persuasion, with much attention in recent years been directed towards Al Qaeda and ISIS related activities on mainstream social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. However, the toxic internet troll culture of the far right received far less attention even though it existed in plain sight.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, Ian Robertson, Emeritus Professor Of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, on the psychology of radicalisation

Importantly, though, it is a long way from keyboard warrior to violent terrorist and these positions are cognitively and behaviourally separate. Regardless of the role of the internet in publicising or encouraging terrorist violence, like all cases of political violence there is no single factor that can explain the decision of an individual to commit an act of violence. The internet is more helpfully imagined as an enabler rather than an instigator.

The key to understanding the extreme right wing is to use what we know from our research into other terrorist organisations. We know terrorism is about (perceived) grievance, dehumanisation of an enemy and a sense of victimhood. It is about social identity, the importance of the peer group, mentors, ideologues and social networks. The Christchurch attacker is no different to any of the other individuals who have carried out atrocities inspired by a political or religious ideology. The processes that support and enable such violence are somewhat universal.

The difference in this case is that the social identity emerged in response to an online community of likeminded individuals. His ideology was developed not in conversation with his peers but learned from the online manifesto of a convicted extreme right wing mass murderer and his social networks emerged from chatrooms and forums deep in the dark web. His sense of victimhood emerged vicariously when he empathised with European victims of terrorism and his sense of grievance was structured by those extremists whom he revered. To Tarrant, his identity, peer groups, sense of grievance and ideology were none the less real or impactful for having emerged from an online environment. As we witnessed, the consequences of this were felt very much in the offline world.

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, historian at Loyola University in Chicago, on right-wing demagogues in US political history

Regardless of where an ideology comes from, it can very successfully turn a personal sense of victimisation or grievance into a coherent political project. The echo chamber that is the internet serves this purpose well. As we witnessed in Tarrant’s manifesto, what may appear like a hodgepodge of rantings and conspiracy theories to some become explainers for societies’ demise and, in the case of the extreme right wing, white genocide and the so-called great replacement.

It is the ability of an extreme right-wing ideology to subsume a range of societal problems and offer simple solutions in straightforward terms that is most dangerous. That such an ideology can creep from the fringes of society toward the mainstream, hiding behind moderate language and what appears to be reasonable assessments of social malaise, is extremely worrying.

We have seen a shift in the rhetoric of the far right from a discourse that prioritises race as its organising concept to one that refers to cultural preservation and a traditional heritage. This has the effect of capturing a broad selection of mainstream ideas in its rhetoric and thus accommodating both moderate and extremist positions in a simple overarching ideology.

Terrorist violence carried out by the far right is about more than anti-immigration, anti-globalist and anti-diversity belief

The first step in dealing with the extreme far right is to acknowledge that it is a problem. Next, we need to define the problem. This does not mean define the term because that means something different. We need to know what we are dealing with and to recognise it when we see it. We need to move beyond racism as being the identifier for the extreme right wing and we need to call it out no matter who espouses it.

Terrorist violence carried out by the far right is about more than anti-immigration, anti-globalist and anti-diversity beliefs, it is about a toxic manifestation of masculinity, a conspiratorial worldview, and sense of aggrieved entitlement, a search for identity, a need for action and a sense of belonging and purpose. This violence is rooted in a long history of right wing beliefs, but is very much a product of the here and now.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ