Two wrongs don’t make a right. If you can’t say anything good, say nothing. These are classic idioms that were frequently voiced in my house as my parents dutifully instilled the age-old narrative that turning the other cheek is better than returning a slap. There are times when these are hard lessons to live by and it takes strength to always act with such noble restraint.
Yet these moral mantras are not just confined to childhood, as the principles can be transferred into the more serious warning that violence often begets violence. This sinister saying re-emerged recently to condemn media narratives that hyperbolise the actions of extremists.
‘He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.’ These were the emotional words declared by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden in the aftermath of the extremist right-wing terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch. She vowed to parliament and to the public that the name Brenton Tarrant would never again pass her lips because this would only serve to ‘lift his profile’ and advertise his views.
Arden’s strident call for us all to follow her lead is based on the commonly held assumption that this will starve the perpetrator of the oxygen of publicity and therefore devalue his agenda. Furthermore, it’s argued that performing such actions with media attention can increase support for the cause. Professor Michael Jetter of EAFIT University in Colombia noted that between 1970-2012 there was a substantial hike in terrorist attacks, reaching a peak of 8,441 in 2012. This rise has occurred alongside a rapid rise in social media and 24 hour news coverage, which extremist networks have gradually used to promote their message to a wider audience.
It goes without saying that correlation is not causation. There are deeper motives that allure affiliates to extremism, but Jetter’s study did establish a link between headlines that sensationalised terror attacks and the number of follow-up incidents that this inspired. This seemingly proves the hypothesis that naming fanatics and giving a free media platform to their cause creates a cycle of inflamed rhetoric that enhances the danger of extremism.
However, despite this lengthy justification for keeping quiet, there is also a valid argument that naming individuals is more helpful than shrouding them in mystery. In terms of terrorist attacks, it’s often the event itself that gains notoriety rather than the actors. I wonder how many readers could identify the 7/7 bombers, the Norwegian far-right terrorist from 2011 or the Manchester Arena attacker. I could not name any of them off the top of my head, but the images of a blown-up bus, bloodstained bodies and crying children are embedded in my memory. This is not to say that the attackers are not important to the news story but hiding their identity will not reduce the message they seek to spread or negate the lasting legacy of their actions. In fact there is a worrying trend to indicate it will do the opposite.
Blanket bans are unhelpful when they create a mythical status that leaves the public unaware of the factors that exacerbated the assailant’s extremism. This leads to vague statements that “our values”, “our freedoms” and “our children” are being violated and must be protected at all costs. This is a classic case of “othering” that implies those who act in a violent manner are fundamentally different to the rest of us. Whilst their inexcusable actions indicate that terrorists have a radically altered sense of justice, they were not preconditioned to think this way. They are not inherently evil beings born with hatred in their heart and a pre-existing capacity to kill. Therefore, logic dictates there must be causal factors that have driven extremism – social isolation, racism, Islamophobia, political objectives, religion and persecution, to name just a few. Understanding the incentives behind an individual is the most powerful way to prevent future attacks. In contrast, by failing to explore an attacker’s background, the public is left woefully misinformed about the triggers for terrorism, which can obstruct effective counter-extremism strategies being implemented.
The gaps in public knowledge can also open up the door to a flood of conspiracy theories, where people can warp the event to align with their own narrative. In refusing to nail down the nuances of what incentivised the New Zealand attacker, Arden potentially created a space for myths to originate. Alternatively, by naming him and publicly addressing his individual motives, the government would have the opportunity to deconstruct the validity for his cause and reduce the force behind his ideology. This would enable the authorities and the public at large to initiate measures to prevent radical mindsets festering.
Ultimately, Arden’s proclamation was mostly a symbolic gesture made to unite a nation in grief and firmly establish that violence is unacceptable. I do not condemn Arden’s message; in fact I commend her for her incredible display of humanity and leadership in the aftermath of such tragedy. However, as the dust settles and emotions become a little less raw, it is important to acknowledge that silence won’t stop violence. Whether you decide to speak Tarrant’s name or not, what is vital is that the root causes of this catastrophe are not cast aside. If they are, the risk of aggressive extremism will only increase.