Terrorism as theater in the age of Internet
‘Bühnensucht’ is a German expression denoting an irrational longing to take the stage or as Jenkins put it already in 1974, “terrorism is theater” (Jenkins 1974:7). In the age of online communication and social media, the stage is the same as the Internet and the audience that interactive mix of producers and consumers, the so-called ‘prosumers’ of online ‘user generated content’, where it is difficult to determine the borders between production and consumption of what Bauman has called ‘autotelic violence’ (2017:30).
The far-right terrorist attack of Christchurch was staged ‘in real life’ (IRL) with the purpose to create maximum impact through dissemination online. Facebook is said to have removed no less than 1,5m videos of the terror attack during the first 24 hours, which demonstrates the magnitude of terrorism as an act of strategic communication (Falkheimer, 2013:44-55) or as Marsh and Mullholland argue: “the attack seemed orchestrated for the social media age” (CNN 2019/1). Tarrant thus has much in common with ISIS who painstakingly staged their executions as emblematic hybrid media narratives with the purpose of a maximum of impact (Krona 2019).
This is one of the first and key take-aways from the ‘manifesto’ of ‘third position’ radical right ideology terrorist Brenton Tarrant released online (of course – and its content presented extensively below): his understanding of the world and his communication with the world is shaped by the Internet and its specific communication culture. His identity-formation as much as radicalization was driven by the hyper-medial environment in which it was aimed to unfold meaning (Madisson 2016).
In one of his bizarre Q&A-sections possibly mimicking the ‘Ask-me-Anything’ format of Reddit, Tarrant states (2019:17): “[Q] From where did you receive/research/develop your beliefs? [A] The internet, of course. You will not find the truth anywhere else.” Radicalization as the “rational response to degeneration” is driven by a dynamic between online and offline socialization “in the flesh or online” (Tarrant 2019:36). He comes out as a true believer of the libertarian and counter-hegemonic destabilizing effect of the free Internet and more peculiar, the Internet as a source of liberation, a way back to explore pure identity and uncorrupted truth:
Once the corporate and state medias grip on the zeitgeist of modernity was finally broken by the internet, true freedom of thought and discussion flourished and the [O]verton window was not just shifted, but shattered. All possibility of expression and belief was open to be taught, discussed and spoken. This open and often anonymous discussion allowed for information, outside of the states and the corporation control, to be accessed often for the first time. The result is obvious. People are finding their way home. Finding their people, finding their traditions, seeing through the lies of history, the brainwashing of the institutions and they angry, they are energized and yes, against their degenerate societies, they are radicalized.” (Tarrant 2019:35–36).
The main elements of the terrorist narrative
If online ontology and epistemology of Tarrant is a significant part of his radicalization process as much as of his life reality, let us now turn to its cognitive dimensions. What are the ideas driving the terrorist to his actions (for a model, see Önnerfors 2018:27-30)? A quantitative analysis of the manifesto was carried out by the Swedish Defence Research Agency FOI with the so-called ‘profile risk assessment tool’ (PRAT, SVT 2019). The analysis demonstrated compelling parallels to Norwegian terrorist Breivik in terms of the intentions to kill and the use of a language of power. In terms of negative emotions, Tarrant expresses anger and sadness on a higher level than Breivik. There is a clear division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Other personality traits are introversion in combination with purposefulness, fearlessness and a low degree of compassion. All in all, a toxic mix. In qualitative terms, we can see the following main themes and concepts addressed in the manifesto:
(1) WHITE DECLINE / WHITE GENOCIDE
‘The Great Replacement’ or ‘ethnic substitution’ (Renaud Camus, Washington Post, 2019) conspiracy theory is all about that the white race is exposed to the threat of extinction through a form of reversed colonialization. Tarrant is obsessed with birthrates (mentioned 12 times), population statistics, reproduction and ‘replacement fertility levels’ (fertility is mentioned 24 times). Falling levels of the purported indigenous European population will inevitably cause ethnic/cultural/racial replacement. The reasons behind the disastrous decline are the destruction of traditional family unit and nihilism and the development is propelled by mass migration by ‘invaders’. This apocalyptic language of deluge and the threat of turning into a domestic minority on the brink of extinction is for instance also very prominent in the German PEGIDA-movement.
(2) BLATANT AND MANICHAEAN (HOWEVER CONDITIONAL) ISLAMOPHOBIA
There is no doubt that Tarrant’s manifesto is essentially ‘counter-jihadist’ and islamophobic in the sense that Islam and Muslims are portrayed as the major and existential threat to white/European supremacy. The manifesto is saturated with ‘counter-jihadist’ and islamophobic enemy images, repeating stereotypes that have circulated in anti-Muslim propaganda ever since. However, and that is related to the next element of the narrative, it is not Islam or Muslims per se that is/are evil – ‘they’ turn into existential enemies in the very moment ‘they’ transgress ‘their’ natural environment and turn into ‘invaders’.
(3) ETHNOPLURALISM, MIXOPHOBIA AND ‘RACIAL AUTONOMY’
Tarrant is not against other people, cultures or religions per se, but adheres to the ‘ethnopluralist’ and ‘mixophobic’ faction (Bar-On, 2013) of the far right hailing a peculiar version of diversity: Every people ought to live in its own organic culture and environment, uncorrupted by the influence of outsiders. Hence, he is also strongly against the US-ideal of a ‘melting pot’. Racial differences are evident and are determined by a climate theory that supports racial apartheid. As with other ethnopluralists, there are a number of contradictions such as: what to do with ethnic minorities in relation to white majorities and white settlers in climates that not originally can be understood as Western or European (such as in South Africa or Australia) and what about intermarriages? Tarrant’s ideas of ecologically motivated ethnopluralism are tightly connected to his eco-fundamentalism.
(4) ECO-FUNDAMENTALISM / ECO-FASCISM / GREEN NATIONALISM
Tarrant mentions repeatedly that he considers himself an ‘eco-fascist’, “preserving and exulting nature and the natural order” through ‘green nationalism’, a peculiar element of his cognitive universe that stands out as compared to other right-wing terrorists. Overpopulation and migration go against his idea of ethnopluralist climate theories. He expresses also strongly anti-modern and anti-capitalist sentiments and blames capitalists and socialists alike to have destroyed nature and the environment. Climate change also justifies reduction of the world population. It is the ‘invaders’ who kill the planet due to their fertility rates. A similar argument was brought forward in the PEGIDA-movement:
“Beleites continues with an extensive discussion of the disadvantages of migration and interprets European generosity as cementing colonial patterns of behaviour. Population growth constitutes an ecological threat. Mass migration causes brain-drain, uprooting, and alienation. The controversial Italian population geneticist Cavalli-Sforza claimed that moving people outside the ecosystem to which they are acclimatized goes against human nature. Since there is no standard climate, there can also be no standard human being. This argument holds North America as a forceful example of migration leading only to a cultural abyss. ” (Önnerfors 2018:105-106) and “The preface to Hennig’s book thus amalgamates eco-fundamentalism with anti-Americanism and essentialist assumptions about the natural order of races (and religions) within given climates and adapted to pre-existing preconditions. All these factors speak against migration.” (Önnerfors 2018:106)
(5) INFERIORITY / VULNERABILITY COMPLEX
One striking element is Tarrant’s recurring underlying complex of inferiority and vulnerability that he expresses. Despite of the theoretical supremacy of the ‘West’ and the white race, there is an existential fear of decline and destruction that does not add up (this paradox is according to Kristian Steiner a typical element in the construction of enemy images).
The invaders are currently superior when it comes to fertility, but also socio-cultural cohesion and traditions. In a retrotopian sentiment, Tarrant laments the decline not only of Western birthrates, but of Western civilization, which apparently has gone off the tracks through industrialization, modernization and capitalism and the destructive ideologies of liberalism and ‘nihilism’. The worst kind are however those who give up their own origins, for instance converts.
(6) CONSPIRACY THEORIES (CTs)
Although not a prominent element of the manifesto as such (apart from the replacement CT as such), there are a number of references to CTs, such as ‘globalism’, the purported control of media, Marxist and corporate control, the ‘anti-white media machine’ and the mysterious “X” that are an issue. “x groups” seem to refer to secret plotters.
”[Q] Why attack immigrants when “x” are the issue? [A] Because the “x” groups can be dealt with in time, but the high fertility immigrants will destroy us now, soon it is a matter of survival we destroy them first.”
(7) ENEMY IMAGES
Apart from the Muslim ‘invaders’ that are omnipresent in the manifesto, Tarrant points out a host of ideological enemies: conservatives (due to their economism), Antifa, Marxists, Communists and ‘Turks’ (there is a clear anti-Ottoman/anti-Turkish twist throughout the manifesto). He specifically also points out Merkel, Erdogan and Khan.
True masculinity is demonstrated through violent action and martial, death-defying ethics with clear parallels to Traditionalist ideas. The manifesto hails the soldier who is prepared to sacrifice himself for the higher cause.
Terrorist motives (revenge, agitation, inciting violence, effects of direct action, creating fear and change)
Tarrant outlines extensively his motivation behind to turn to terrorist action:
- The terrorist act is interpreted against the great frame narrative of white genocide: fight against invasion and revenge for previous terrorist attacks and warfare stretching back to the loss of Constantiople in 1453 and the Crusades.
- Tarrant consciously aims at to incite violence, he claims, and to further societal divides.
- The inner enemy is the ‘nihilistic, hedonistic, individualistic insanity’ in Western thought.
- Tarrant wants to split the NATO between Christian and non-Christian countries, he is clearly anti-Turkish.
- His aim is also to incite violence in the US by fueling the controversy over the 2nd amendment with the ultimate aim of civil war, balkanization and the destruction of the ‘melting pot’-ideal, the racial (spatial) division of the US into white and non-white territories. The issue of indigenous populations is not addressed.
- Tarrant says that two game-changing events for him were the Swedish terrorist attack of April 2017 and the French general election of the same year. He expresses hatred of Macron, but likewise of Le Pen. Swedish candidate for MEP Sara Skyttedal of the Christian Democrats repeated exactly this ideological position in an interview only a day after the terrorist attack (DN 2019).
- Was the terrorist attack a part of strategic communication? Tarrant is ambiguous/contradictory. One the one hand he says that it was not a PR-stunt for his ideas, on the other hand he says that the media impact matters.
Some interesting details
- Tarrant’s travel account of unease through France where he realizes that the ‘invaders’ are everywhere and that the lives lost in WW1 not are remembered (forgotten sacrifices of freedom).
- Tarrant says he was in contact with the ‘reborn Knights Templar’ around ‘Knight Justiciar’ Breivik, whom he admires deeply.
- Christians ought to align with the anti-Islamist views of pope Urban II who started the crusades.
- Pro-Trump (‘symbol of renewed white identity’) and Pro-Brexit.
- There are elements in the manifesto as well as displayed during the terrorist attack that suggest Tarrant had contacts/sympathies with violent islamophobic extremists from the Balkan countries.
General description of the manifesto
The manifesto in the version I have received as a pdf counts 74 unpaginated pages. When converted to a word document, it translated to 15 434 words (this might not be the precise figure). The manifesto can be divided into the following parts:
- Title page
Title: The Great Replacement
Subtitle: Towards a New Society We March Ever Forwards
In between title and subtitle is placed a circle with 8 subsections, titled clockwise ‘environmentalism’, ‘responsible markets’, ‘addiction-free community’, ‘law & order’, ‘ethnic autonomy’, ‘protection of heritage and culture’, ‘worker’s rights’, ‘anti-imperialism’. In the center of the circle, we find the SS-symbol ‘Schwarze Sonne’ (‘Black Sun’). The symbol appears on the Twitter account @Cyber_Drifter, oddly with a communist hammer and sickle in the centre. It was posted 19 January 2019 (accessed 15 March 2019). [https://twitter.com/Cyber_Drifter/status/1086661543364837376]
The image as used by the Christchurch terrorist was also published on Reddit.
- Part 1 Introduction (p. 1-3)
A poem written by Dylan Thomas is followed by a general introduction in which the perpetrator outlines his main argument: the white race is under attack and threatened by imminent extinction.
- Part 2 consisting of three Mock interviews
Mock interview 1 (4-18)
The terrorist pretends in the future to have been interviewed answering general questions about himself and his motives.
Mock interview 2 (18-19)
The terrorist pretends in the future to have been interviewed by ‘my people’ and supporters.
Mock interview 3 (19-22)
The terrorist pretends in the future to have been interviewed by ‘detractors’ and those that oppose his beliefs/methods.
- Part 3 Section I “Addresses to various groups” (23-28)
Starts with an altered version of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Addressed to: 1) conservatives, 2) Christians, 3) Antifa/Marxist/Communists, 4) To Turks.
- Part 4 Section II “General thoughts and Potential Strategies” (29-72)
In this largest section of the manifesto, 38 topics are addressed in shorter or longer paragraphs.
- Part 5 Section IV [Section III apparently missing or wrong count] (72-73)
- Back side: a collage of eight color images, heavily masculinized and feminized imagery together with the idealization of natural purity, martial ideals, the benefits of rural life and traditional/natural gender roles.
Image 1: a man in the (Nordic) woods with his hound
Image 2 (opposite): a little girl hugging a woman
Image 3: a group of three people pictured from behind having a picnic in a forest
Image 4 (opposite): two armed commandos
Image 5: heavily equipped elite soldier in (Scottish?) landscape
Image 6 (opposite): mother kissing her baby child
Image 7: a farmer woman together with her daughter, sowing
Image 8 (opposite): a man together with his son, fishing
Images 1-4 and 5-8 are joined at their intersections with the SS ‘Black Sun’ symbol
Topics addressed in the section ‘General Thoughts’
The topics addressed in this section are arranged in the same fashion, with a heading, a body of text and a final sentence in ALL CAPS. They range from a few lines to about a page in length. These are the ideas expressed: • blame our own weakness, • rape of European women, • diversity means weakness and a bit later, • diversity and equality cannot coexist / hierarchies are motivated, • ‘radicalization is the rational response to degeneration’ ( a long and very interesting passage), • assimilation is a failure , • green nationalism is the only true nationalism, • kill high profile enemies: Merkel, Erdogan, Khan, • we are embedded in history and legacy of the past, • martial ideas of heroism and soldier ideal, • the invader is an existential threat => the unarmed invader is the real threat, • march through institutions for those who can, • populism is the true source of political legitimacy, • you cannot hide from the inherent apocalypse, • emotions rule over facts: you need to engage people through emotional appeal, ‘be passionate’, • no profits for non-whites: take direct action against capitalism’s tolerance towards foreign labor, • kill drug-dealers (Duterte style), • Europe is the homeland of Europeans, • do not wait for a signal, engage in direct action, • to become a minority is the highway to hell, • kill all enemies, • do not emigrate to the countryside, take the fight in the cities, • support ‘brother nations’, • accept mortality and death for the higher good, • it is not only numbers that need to be addressed, but our motivation, • birthrates are the key to the future of the white race (repeatedly treated in separate points), • there is no democratic solution, • NGO’s helping migrants across the Mediterranean are ‘involved in the genocide of the European people’, • we are not allowed to lose history, but need to act now, • the people in Europe have to live separate lives and cultures in their respective ethnicity (ethnopluralism), • leaders will eventually reveal themselves, • direct action is the key to change (repeatedly stated), • conflict needs to be incited, destabilization is a goal in itself => violent change, • economic globalization is an enemy of ‘racial autonomy’, the principle of cheap labor is to be attacked (minimum wage, unionization proposed), • let the melting pot US boil over (the new civil war needs to come), • defy taxation
Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in the History of Ideas, University of Gothenberg. See his profile here:
© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
Special thanks go to: Tobias Hübinette, Rasmus Fleischer, Pontus Näslund Stagling, Torbjörn Jerlerup and Raluca Radu for providing with input. Helpful were also postings by Chip Berlet and Christer Mattsson.
Bar-On, Tamir. 2013. Rethinking the French New Right. London: Routledge.
CNN 2019/1. “How the Christchurch terrorist attack was made for social media”,
CNN 2019/2, ”The internet is radicalizing white men. Big tech could be doing more”,
DN 2019. ”Orbán och Macron är lika destruktiva” [Orbán and Macron are both destructive] https://www.dn.se/nyheter/politik/sara-skyttedal-kristdemokraterna-orban-och-macron-ar-lika-destruktiva/
Falkheimer, Jesper. 2013. “Terrorism, medier och propaganda.” In: Vetenskapssocieten i Lund – Årsbok 2013. Vetenskapssocieten: Lund.
Jenkins, B.M. 1974. “International Terrorism: a New Kind of Warfare”. The Rand Paper Series (Vol. P-5261). Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.
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Önnerfors, Andreas and Steiner, Kristian. “Introduction” in Önnerfors, Andreas and Steiner, Kristian. Eds. 2018. Expressions of Radicalization: Global Politics, processes and Practices. Palgrave: London.
Washington Post. 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/new-zealand-suspect-inspired-by-far-right-french-intellectual-who-feared-nonwhite-immigration/2019/03/15/8c39fba4-6201-4a8d-99c6-aa42db53d6d3_story.html?fbclid=IwAR1cCDpyw7eixBfZG3u9s2TggME_wKjQQuIBDjTrzcAuUA6aP-V9qNZZgPA&noredirect=on&utm_term=.9fd86c6573b9