How the Christchurch Shooter Seduced the Media With His Evil

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Some people just want to see the world burn. Based on the 74-page “manifesto” that he provided online via 4chan and Twitter, the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter would seem to be one such person—if, that is, we assume he was the author of what ought to be an obvious exercise in trolling.

Journalists and other commentators have spent several days scrambling to cobble together a coherent narrative from the manifesto. They have opined on its citations of Sir Oswald Mosley and Candace Owens, parsed claims that it makes about the shooter’s ideology, and declared the shooter’s ties to 8chan are clear evidence of his right-wing extremism. They have described the manifesto as “a document of the utmost single-minded clarity.” And they are certain it says something about the “extreme right,” particularly in its references to medieval European history and the Crusades.

Their confidence in their reading would be laughable if it were not so biased by their own ideological preconceptions. To put it bluntly, they have been pwnd.

“Were/are you ‘right wing’?” the manifesto asks. The shooter meant himself. “Depending on the definition, sure. Were/are you ‘left wing’? Depending on the definition, sure.” The self-exposition continues: “For once, the person that will be called a fascist, is an actual fascist. I am sure journalists will love that . . . . The nation with the closest political and social values to my own is the People’s Republic of China.”

The shooter throws out questions about his religious faith similarly designed to confound: “Were/are you a christian? [sic] That is complicated. When I know, I will tell you.” He alludes to connections that he has with groups that might suggest that he values the support of Christians: “No group ordered my attack, I make [sic] the decision myself. Though I did contact the reborn Knights Templar [no reference given] for a blessing in support of the attack, which was given.” Then he concludes with a valediction that no Christian would give: “As for me, my time has come . . . . Goodbye, god [sic] bless you and I will see you in Valhalla.”

The whole document reads like a series of red herrings strewn about the pages of a thriller by Dan Brown. Even attempting to parse this cut-and-paste nonsense is to fall into the trap. It is beyond naïve to take anything said in the manifesto seriously as a clue to the shooter’s intention other than to sow discord.

Would a Christian expect to find himself in Valhalla after death? Would a fascist describe Communist China as his social and political ideal? Based on the “evidence” given in the manifesto, the alleged shooter is just as likely to be a left-wing extremist as he is to be on the Right.

Nor does his invocation of the Crusades suggest clearly what side he is on. On the one hand, the manifesto includes a long citation from Pope Urban II’s 1095 call for the defense of Christians in the Holy Land. “ASK YOURSELF,” the manifesto exhorts, “WHAT WOULD POPE URBAN II DO?”—with the apparent implication that they should be roused to fight. On the other hand, citing the letter could be intended to frighten Christians away from standing up for their own faith against the slander commonplace in the media about the Crusades. The Crusaders, a Christchurch-based Super Rugby club, is already considering changing its name out of respect for Muslims in Christchurch. Perhaps the city should consider changing its name as well.

The historical ignorance on display in such gestures would be breathtaking if it were not so banal. Perhaps if the journalists and their fellow handwringers knew a bit more medieval history they would not fall so easily into the trap. The actual Crusaders, including the Knights Templar, had far more respect for their Muslim opponents as Muslims than any hand-wringing multicultural apologist does today. As one aristocratic Arab-Syrian Muslim famously recorded in the mid-12th century:

Whenever I visited Jerusalem I always entered the Aqsa Mosque, beside which stood a small mosque, which the Franks had converted into a church. When I used to enter the Aqsa Mosque, which was occupied by the Templars, who were my friends, the Templars would evacuate the little adjoining mosque so that I might pray in it.

The Templars even chastised a newly arrived Frank when he attempted to remove the gentleman from the mosque.

Commentators, including colleagues in medieval history, often point to the Crusades as evidence for the ongoing efforts of Europeans (and those of European descent) to assert their “white supremacy” over the peoples of the Middle East. But as historians Thomas Madden, Andrew Holt, Jonathan Riley-Smith, Paul Crawford, and many others have repeatedly demonstrated, the First Crusade was launched as a defensive venture against the expansion of Islam into Christian territories—in order to defend fellow Christians. Then as now, the peoples of the Middle East included Christians whom modern race theorists would describe as nonwhite, and yet the accounts of the First Crusade make no mention of their race, only the fact that they had suffered atrocities at the hands of the invaders.

For a purported white supremacist to invoke the Crusaders or Templars as models makes as much sense as invoking their Muslim opponents, particularly their leaders, whose mothers were often white slaves purchased from Eastern European slavers. (The very word “slave” in English derives from the ethnonym “Slav.”) Far from villainizing them for their race, medieval Christian knights recognized their Muslim opponents as great warriors, distinguished from Christians only by their object of prayer.

This is the way the 12th-century Song of Roland described the Emperor Charlemagne’s Muslim opponent the Emir Baligant:

White as a flower upon a summer’s morn,

His valour proved in battle o’er and o’er,

Were he but Christian, God! what a warrior!

Well into the 19th century, Christian authors such as Sir Walter Scott described Muslims as honorable and chivalric in their adherence to their own worship, even if (according to Christians) they were wrong in their understanding of God. The difference was theological, not racial, even as it was the Muslim conquests of Christian territories that sparked the medieval wars.

That so many modern commentators are incapable of seeing religion as anything other than a proxy for race says more about the modern loss of theological knowledge than it does about the real tensions at play between modern Christians and Muslims. If the manifesto—not to mention the shooter’s choice of venue—is positive evidence of anything, it is the secular cynicism about the importance of prayer. Real medieval Templars respected their Muslim counterparts for their piety and willingness to defend their faith.

The one thing that the shooter’s manifesto makes clear is that somebody out there wants a race war and that somebody wants both Christians and Muslims to bear the blame, even as decades of attacks against Christians—and Muslims—of all races have failed to spark this war. Somebody out there is confident that an attack on the right group of innocents will spark the conflagration, if only the proper trigger can be pulled.

Maybe that somebody is a person—or persons—with considerable economic and political power.

Maybe that somebody is a young man—or group of young men and women—who simply wants to enjoy the spectacle of war.

But that anybody, even for an instant, took this manifesto seriously as anything other than an effort to provoke violence? That is far more worrying than anything one might find in the manifesto itself.

Photo Credit: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

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About Rachel Fulton Brown

Rachel Fulton Brown is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, where she teaches courses on the history of Christianity and European civilization. She is the author of From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200, and Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. She blogs at Fencing Bear at Prayer on training the soul in virtue in the postmodern West.