Speech Melba | Society

On Christchurch shootings and live-streaming terror attacks

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand   | Photo Credit: Hagen Hopkins

From cat video to Christchurch massacre, how responses matter in a livestreamed world

Last week, a terrorist went on a rampage with semi-automatic weapons in two mosques in New Zealand, killing 49 people. The killer was a white, right-wing extremist who live-streamed his attack.

One of the first things that came to mind was the lynching of Mohammad Afrazul in December 2017 in Rajasthan. As Shambhulal Regar hacked Afrazul to death, set him on fire, then made a speech justifying the act, an associate filmed it and posted it online.

As right-wing fanaticism rises across the world, this time around it has two added dimensions. First, murder as spectacle and second, murder as self-endorsement. The digital age’s obsession with the photo and the video isn’t confined to the steak you eat and the train-ride you take, but extends to every sad, dark and horrible thought or act you might indulge in. And — frighteningly — if a biriyani lunch gets 5,000 ‘likes’, so too does a lynching. Apparently, the Christchurch killer’s online ‘friends’ hailed him even as the bodies piled up.

Such are the cheerful times we live in. And such our greed, our craving for validation. It’s a vicious cycle. Social media quickly gets bored, so users try to go one up on extreme acts, whether of adventure or evil, love or hate. In turn, as the ‘likes’ mount, it pushes people to bolder and bigger acts. Social media means that you don’t have to be an actor or footballer to be famous anymore. Being involved in self-harm or substance abuse, stress or depression, murder, rape or mob violence — it’s all film worthy and fame worthy. Murderer, model and lynch mob alike get a cheering squad.

In this happy democratic paradise of sharing, everything degenerates into a sameness of importance. A cancer patient can raise money for chemotherapy, but equally a yweet that you’re overworked can buy you a ‘cheer-up’ dress. Cat videos, no-date blues, a lassi-making film, the killing of Afrazul — anything can go viral, anything can get crowdfunding because everything has the same debased value.

In ancient Greece, the worst acts of violence or depravity were considered ob skene or off-stage: not fit to be seen on stage. ‘Murder’, ‘parricide’, ‘incest’ were considered unscriptable; they occurred off-stage and were described by a witness or the chorus. Ob skene is considered the origin of the English ‘obscene’. Only, nothing is off-stage today. And so the horror is compounded — once when it happens, then when it is broadcast, then when it is accorded the same response as a music video.

It is in this context that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s statement is important. In simple, powerful words she said that refugees and migrants were all ‘us’. It’s the killer, she said, who is not ‘us’. “There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme violence,” she said. By stating the horror and by refusing to name the killer, Ardern relegated evil back to its dark place.

The intent of the Christchurch killer’s video or the Afrazul video is to normalise the killing; to pretend that ‘love jihad’ or ‘immigration’ or ‘beef-eating’ are problems of such magnitude that murder is not only a legitimate response but so legitimate that it can be performed on-stage, in front of a camera, for an audience that endorses it.

It is a leader’s duty to treat such thugs as the threat they are and state clearly that nothing justifies slaughter. Nothing. Only this can put rightness back in a world gone mad.

It is the absence of such clear denunciation that is worrying in our own country. Dyslexia, sanitation workers, soldiers, lynching, economic data — everything is treated like a Bollywood phillum. Everything is a photo-op. Any condemnation is first artfully obscured by the red herrings: ‘Nehru did it’ / ‘Soldiers are dying’ / ‘The dynasty is evil’ / Hinduism is in danger’. Often, the state responds by arresting the victims in a bizarre mockery of impartiality.

After barbarism such as Christchurch or Afrazul or Akhlaq, a nation needs to hear its leader’s condemnation loud and clear. But we don’t get this. Instead, we get carefully prepared dialogues and tweets that are promptly greeted with blood-curdling cheers from an online army of bots and devotees. What we need from our leader is heartfelt sorrow and angry censure; what we get instead is camera-ready tears and tele-prompted hype.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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Printable version | May 24, 2020 12:21:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/on-christchurch-and-going-viral/article26598093.ece

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