An internet crime for the no-consequences generation

“A mass murderer of, and for, the internet”: Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant. A Devil’s Curmudgeon.

Another old piece.

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, two perceptive comments were made to me. The first was that “This is the first internet terrorist”; the other was that the killer’s livestream turned the horrific crime into an almost abstract event, “like a video game”.

ISIS were particularly notorious for their savvy social media campaigns. Thousands of eager recruits flocked to joined the Caliphate motivated in no small part by a salivating urge to get in on the bloody mayhem they were watching on YouTube. But, in many ways, ISIS’ vile recruiting campaigns were quite old-school: its magazine Dabiq was like any other glossy, just converted to PDF. Its YouTube videos were old-fashioned snuff movies targeted towards kids who watch iPhones rather than the telly.

But the Christchurch murderer and his heinous crime are thoroughly steeped in an internet culture far removed from glossy magazines and videos. The killer’s manifesto is not just a pitiless eco-fascist, ethnonationalist ideology: in fact, the killer’s horrific ideology is all-but buried. The document is mostly a bizarre melange of memes, “shitposting” and meta-text. This is why the New York TimesKevin Roose also dubbed the killer “a mass murderer of, and for, the internet”.

This was a killing created and stewed in internet culture. That doesn’t, of course, mean that internet culture is “to blame”, any more than video games. The only person who bears responsibility is the murderer and any accomplices he may have had. The ideology of eco-fascism dates back to probably the 19th century, in the same “blood and soil” mysticism that birthed all manner of offshoots, from organic farming to Nazism. Ethnonationalism is even older.

But there is a very real consequence of the internet culture that nurtured Christchurch that Roose overlooks. The murderer’s framing of his crime in internet culture is very much a consequence of a no-consequences generation.

In a neat display of internet-like meta-irony, this has been summed up by an internet meme. It stated something like “social media is the result of people who’ve never had to worry about being punched in the face for talking shit to strangers”.

This lack of consequences is part and parcel of the millennial generation. Dubbed “cotton-wool” kids, people of the killer’s age grew up shielded from the rough edges of life. Not only were they never told that they were wrong about anything – hence their supremely arrogant confidence in their opinions, and their conviction that any contradiction thereof is akin to literal violence – but they were assiduously mollycoddled. Playgrounds became outdoor padded cells, and kids were rarely allowed unsupervised play: the sort of adventurous, childish risk-taking where kids once earned scratches, bruises, even scars.

In the process, they were denied an important lesson: actions have consequences. Do dumb things and you get hurt.

These are people who’ve lived life through screens, with all the concomitant detachment. A boy once boasted to me that he would be a good driver because he was expert at driving games. When he got his first car, he smashed it almost immediately. Unfortunately, he was quite badly hurt. He learned possibly the first painful lesson of his life: when you smash a real car, you don’t just hit “reset” and go again.

In Christchurch, the killer’s livestreamed crime was perpetrated with all the detached complacency of a video game.

This is not to blame video games, any more than the internet itself. Neither were a proximate or primary motivation for the killer’s heinous crime. The killer appears to have been motivated by both a genocidal, Malthusian ideology that frames humans as some kind of “plague” on Mother Nature, and by the same racial essentialism at the root of identity politics.

Desensitisation is well known to play a major part in preparing the groundwork for genocide. The Nazis spent years framing Jews as “rats” and “plague”. The Rwandan genocides portrayed their intended victims as “cockroaches”. By making their victims less than human, mass murder becomes conceivable.

One wonders if the Christchurch monster saw his victims as even human beings: flesh and blood people who were suffering and dying? Or were they as abstract as the enemies in a video game?

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