A review of a book about the ideology of the Christchurch massacre perpetrator.
Whenever a terrorist incident occurs somewhere in the world, a tell-all book or movie-of-the-week is sure to follow. Mostly it’s an exploitative response that is shallow and adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the phenomenon. Fascists Among Us by Jeff Sparrow is not such a book. It covers the Christchurch mosque attack but eschews such approaches as pseudo-first-person narrative or lurid descriptions of events by on-the-scene observers. Rather, it makes an honest attempt to get into the motivations behind the attack. The most commendable aspect of this being the rejection of superficial psychological explanations, in favour of acknowledging the political impetus behind events. For example, Sparrow argues Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto “…expresses-with stark clarity-a distinctive political program.” (p.10). He references the term ‘autogenic’ to describe massacres driven by psychopathology or personal problems but explicitly notes that the murderer says in his document on the killings that they were “…a politically motivated terrorist attack” but “…he used them to rewrite the massacre script, injecting political content into an apolitical form” (p. 73).
Any book with the word ‘Fascist’ in the title should not shy away from attempting a definition of what is a notoriously difficult phenomenon to pin down. Sparrow tackles this with reference to some of the acknowledged academic experts in the field such as Paxton, Griffin and Mosse as well as quotes from Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley. He is then careful to place Tarrant’s own words into the mix, showing undeniable links to these ideological predecessors.
The author recognises that despite radical sounding elements, it is the reactionary nature of classical fascism that ultimately defines it. For anarchists, it is a welcome recognition that one element of this reactionary politics is its emphasis on the creation of “…an authoritarian regime based on supposed natural hierarchies” (p.43). Sparrow again places the shooter within that tradition, condemned by his own words, quoting from his manifesto ‘Diversity is unequal, hierarchies are certain’ (p.13). This highlights two important points. Firstly, that while others may waver in their opposition to fascism, anarchists always have been and always will be their most consistent opponents. Wishing to establish a world of social and economic equality and our implacable rejection of hierarchies as an organising principle puts us in existential opposition to fascism in ways that other political movements are not. Secondly, it shows the bankruptcy of some on the conservative Right who erroneously define fascism as a Left-wing movement.
Despite the very real continuities with the past, it’s also important to look at the factors that have aided the contemporary fascists. On a macro scale, this has included the primacy of Islamophobia as a bogeyman that works better as a motivator than the lingering traditional anti-Semitism. Sparrow spends a chapter showing how the fuel of US state actions post-9/11 has created an environment where ‘Islam’ “…has become for many an essentialised, almost biological, term” (p.29). One of Tarrant’s obsessions as outlined in his screed was the birthrates within ‘Islam’ being higher than others and the threat, he saw this having to those he identified with.
Another more recent and obvious influence has been the rhetorical enabling the Trump administration has had upon the fascists. The writer is careful to show that despite being odious in his own right, the fascist label doesn’t apply to Trump. In his chapter on this, Sparrow also outlines how different tactical options were explored that took internet traffic in the direction of street activism. The culmination being the Fascist riot in Charlottesville in 2017 and the death of Heather Heyer. In the end, this was a dismal failure for the fascists and goes some way to explaining the attraction of non-net-based lone wolf actions rather than internet shitposting, incel whining, or LARPing.
Add to the above an interest in eco-fascism and accelerationism, combined with personal experiences in both Australia (where fascists targeted Anarchist social locations) and Europe, and you get some taste of the eclectic toxic political brew Tarrant created for himself. Sparrow does a good job in outlining all of this and clearly separates out different strands of thought that do or don’t apply in this case.
In the conclusion, the author criticises sections of the mainstream media who argued that it was wrong to publish extracts from Tarrant’s manifesto. They said that just mentioning he was radicalised in Europe was enough. Sparrow rightly takes them to task for this by pointing out “He was ideologically committed to fascism, a movement that is consistently handed propaganda victories by a mass media unwilling or incapable of understanding it.” (p.116). An excellent point.
It feels necessary to take issue with Sparrow though on a related informational issue. He chooses early in the book to consistently refer to Tarrant as ‘Person X’. The two central explanations being that by naming Brenton Tarrant it somehow diminishes his victims and that since he was anonymous prior to the attack and that there are others similar to him out there, such a pseudonym makes him emblematic of future such operators in the future (pp. 4-5). There are a few problems with this no doubt well-meaning sensitivity. Firstly, this book isn’t about the victims, but the perpetrator. A book that examines the lives of the victims would be a worthwhile project, but this isn’t it. Secondly, by allowing Tarrant to retain his anonymity it if anything lets him off the hook for personal responsibility for his actions. Yes, he is a ‘type’ but not just an abstraction. He is a living individual who did something. Thirdly, the excellent analysis provided describing how Tarrant became Tarrant applies to him. Future fascist terrorists will not be carbon copies of him, in the same way, that he was inspired by, but was not a direct copy of others. Fourthly, Sparrow sensibly adopts the usual journalistic and academic convention of footnoting. Fine except the writer explicitly names Brenton Tarrant and the title of his manifesto in the very first footnote of chapter 1 of the book! This undermines the moral high ground attempted in the explanation of the Introduction and makes ongoing use of ‘Person X’ redundant. Also, if Sparrow has no problem mentioning Hitler, who surely had a far more devastating and lasting impact than Tarrant, the reader should be able to handle seeing the name of the latter. Lastly, there’s a bit of an air of fundamentalist Christianity to it, as if invoking the name will somehow empower Satan. Given Sparrow’s worthwhile quest to inform, including the perpetrator's name just would’ve made more sense.
Jeff Sparrow has done a mostly solid job of showing what (if not who) lay behind the Christchurch massacre. It’s a text that can be recommended to anyone who wants to understand the political poison of Fascism, how it began, and how it has morphed across time. For anarchists, it is a reminder that we can never afford to let others do the work of Anti-fascism for us and must remain eternally vigilant and active in pursuit of a better world. No Pasaran!