New Zealand

In New Zealand, a Democracy Turns Against Itself

Under pressure, democracies have a nasty habit of acting like panicked crowds.



One of the oldest criticisms of democracy is that it's prone to degenerating into little more than mob rule, driven by the latest panic, hatred, or revulsion to consume people's attention. When it comes to stoking such strong emotions, it's difficult to top the effect of the brutal mass murders committed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In the wake of that crime, the country's government has succumbed to blind reaction by restricting speech, depriving innocent people of arms, and heightening domestic surveillance—intrusions into individual rights that are inherent whether or not governments and majorities formally respect them.

It's a grim illustration of just how vulnerable the "liberal" element of liberal democracy can be—as our own country has itself demonstrated in the past.

"The greatest danger to democracy is a struggling population in search of easy answers," commented Philip Freeman, now a professor of classics at Pepperdine University, during a 2016 Arizona State University forum on demagoguery. As demagogues go, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks less like a Mussolini-type leading a mob and more like a participant in the panic trotting just a bit faster than the others and eager to mouth as many "easy answers" as it takes to avoid getting trampled by the rest.

Among those easy answers is a quickly introduced ban on semiautomatic firearms, with a few exceptions for .22 rifles and shotguns in order to minimize resistance from rural dwellers who need such tools. How enforceable the ban will be is anybody's guess, since the country doesn't currently have widespread registration to track who has which guns. Ardern proposes a national registry for firearms that remain in private hands, presumably to ease the task of confiscating them during the next unthinking panic.

Ironically, mass murderer Brenton Tarrant wanted just such a reaction. In his nasty, hate-filled "manifesto" he explained that, to commit his crimes:

I chose firearms for the affect it would have on social discourse, the extra media coverage they would provide and the affect it could have on the politics of United states and thereby the political situation of the world… With enough pressure the left wing within the United states will seek to abolish the second amendment, and the right wing within the US will see this as an attack on their very freedom and liberty. This attempted abolishment of rights by the left will result in a dramatic polarization of the people in the United States and eventually a fracturing of the US along cultural and racial lines.

The effect on New Zealand law he considered a foregone conclusion, describing gun owners there as "a beaten, miserable bunch of baby boomers, who have long since given up the fight."

Do the people of New Zealand know that they're playing into the hands of a murderous, racist thug? Are they aware that that they're explicitly fulfilling the desires of a self-described "fascist" who admires the government of the People's Republic of China, and wants to "incite violence, retaliation" with the partial goal of "destabilizing and polarizing Western society?"

Perhaps they don't know because "Chief Censor" David Shanks banned possession of both the video record Tarrant made of his crimes, as well as the manifesto he produced explaining what he hoped to accomplish by slaughtering people. Shanks declared it "illegal to have a copy of the video or document, or to share these with others." Knowing possession of either the video or the manifesto by unauthorized individuals is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and NZ$50,000, while distribution can get you 14 years behind bars.

The video was banned, said the censor, because of its "depiction and promotion of extreme violence and terrorism." But similar content is also found in footage of bloody conflicts, such as the Vietnam War, which helped to spur opposition to the same by emphasizing the reality and consequences of violence. "Certainly, the war became a television event, a tragic serial drama stretched over thousands of nights in the American consciousness," wrote Michael A. Anderegg in Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television, published in 2009.

As for the manifesto, "it promotes, encourages and justifies acts of murder and terrorist violence against identified groups of people," insists Shanks. "It crosses the line." Yes, it does cross the line—but no more so than the murderer himself. It just might be helpful to know what motivated the son of a bitch (and to see that Ardern and company are essentially following Tarrant's script in their reactions).

New Zealanders looking for relevant information about the massacre from overseas will encounter yet more censorship. ISPs are limiting access to websites elsewhere "following specific requests from the government."

They also may run afoul of their countries' spies, on the lookout for just such end-runs around the law. New Zealand's domestic surveillance apparatus, which Edward Snowden has already revealed as intrusive, says it has stepped up its efforts after the attack. No doubt much of that effort will be expended to find legitimate threats—although some innocent people may be rousted along the way. But people retaining newly illegal guns or perusing forbidden documents may want to be sure to draw the curtains.

Unfortunately, New Zealand isn't unique in surrendering individual rights and respect for liberty to the panic of the moment. We need look no further than our own country for examples that are as bad or worse.

Furious at opposition to World War I, the Wilson administration "took immediate steps at home to curtail one of the pillars of democracy–press freedom–by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage," according to Christopher B. Daly, professor of journalism at Boston University. It was left to succeeding president Harding and Coolidge to release Wilson's political prisoners, including Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs.

Using the stresses of the Depression and the Second World War as his excuses, FDR also worked to squash dissent and investigate critics, though less brutally than Wilson. His biggest crime, though, was confining 117,000 Japanese-Americans to concentration camps for fear of what they might do, based on their ancestry.

"On what theory can an American citizen be locked up, with or without trial, because of his race?" the Chicago Tribune (which itself was investigated by the administration over repeated criticism of the president and his policies) asked at the time.

More recently and directly relevant to New Zealand's experience, national uproar over the 9/11 terrorist attacks let to the passage of the Patriot Act under President George W. Bush "without debate" as the American Civil Liberties Union points out. "The massive surveillance bill was hastily passed just 45 days after 9/11, and was the first of many changes to surveillance laws over the past decade that made it easier for the government to spy on innocent Americans," the group adds.

Under pressure, democracies have a nasty habit of acting like panicked crowds, suppressing anything frightening or just different in a search for security and conformity. That's true in the United States as well as in New Zealand. It's a habit worth breaking if liberal democracies are to rebut their critics and demonstrate their ability to remain bastions of freedom.

But to know that Brenton Tarrant himself chortled that "democracy is mob rule" in his manifesto, and that New Zealand's government is living down to his predictions with its authoritarian reactions, you'd have to be free to read his words for yourself. For the moment, anybody doing so in that country risks stiff fines and arrest.