The Western World had been through this before. Numerous times. Yet that does not in any way minimize the grotesque hatred and terrible pain of the New Zealand massacre.
It had much the same earmarks as other mass shootings: a lone gunman, well-equipped for his murderous task, who strides in unchallenged and, without warning, starts shooting; helpless scores of innocent victims in a place of worship, this time a mosque; a long list of names of the dead — 50 of them — and another 50 wounded.
This shooting had its hero, too. His name was Naeem Rashid. He was seen in a video of the attack apparently trying to stop the killer. Rashid, a 50-year-old immigrant from Pakistan, died along with his son Talha, 21.
Shock and horror has been the lot of the people of New Zealand. They can’t believe what happened, but they know it has, as in so many other times and places. They stand with the bereaved, they remember the victims. They pledge rejection of bigotry. They know it can happen again, and probably will.
We have been here before.
The feelings of revulsion at this massacre are shared by New Zealanders and Americans, Moslems, Jews and Christians, the ideological right and the left, the sane and the still-searching for sanity in a world that seems at times to have gone mad.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that the country’s “gun laws will change … now is the time.” New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters, her coalition partner, agreed: “The reality is after March 15, our world changed forever, and so will our laws.”
The owner of the New Zealand firearms chain Gun City, where the killer bought four of his weapons, agreed as well. Managing director David Tipple said that “All Gun City sales to this individual followed a police-verified, online, mail-order process,” he said. “We detected nothing extraordinary about this license holder.”
Tipple said he was “dismayed and disgusted” by the attack, and said Gun City “fully supports [Ardern’s] swift and decisive actions.”
Undoubtedly, stricter gun laws would be a rational response to the tragedy. But gun laws are not the only culprit.
One of the most shocking aspects of the massacre was the way in which the perpetrator went about publicizing it: live-streaming his odious rampage via a helmet camera, using the latest social media technology to make himself infamous instantaneously.
It was a case of hate beating technology. Hate has proved itself more ingenious than those who invented and operate the internet.
Indeed, the conduct of the social media aiding and abetting this maniac — albeit unwillingly — was appalling. Even two days before the shooting, he was actively spewing his hate across different platforms. Neither the tech giants nor law enforcement authorities spotted him. Even during and after the event, they were hard-pressed to control the hideous videos from continuing to be disseminated.
As Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said: “The rapid and wide-scale dissemination of this hateful content … shows how easily the largest platforms can still be misused. It is ever clearer that [they have] yet to grapple with the role [they have] played in facilitating radicalization and recruitment.”
The response of social media was nothing less than pathetic. As one platform tweeted Friday morning: “Our hearts are broken over today’s terrible tragedy in New Zealand. Please know we are working vigilantly to remove any violent footage.” Twitter admitted that it was still working to expunge one of the videos from its network.
Some journalists were also crying mea culpa. As one wrote, “By now, we know to restrain our instinct to recirculate, and perversely glamorize, the details. We know to deprive the virulent corners of modern life of the ‘oxygen of amplification,’ in the words of Whitney Phillips, of the Data & Society Research Institute.”
But an informal survey of media coverage does not seem to show much newfound restraint. The name of the madman, his statements and the specifics of his murderous deeds continue to be publicized.
For both social media and the journalistic community, the New Zealand massacre once again poses the dilemma of how to balance regulation of these instruments of publicity with freedom of speech. How to keep the forces of evil from misusing the freedom that civilization provides in order to bring down civilization. It is a question that can no longer be evaded.
Because we have been here before. Too many times.