The horrific terrorist attacks on two mosques in New Zealand’s city of Christchurch have prompted calls for extremist websites or sites that allow extremists to promote hate and bigotry to censor or be censored. Calls for censorship in the wake of the tragic New Zealand shooting are not only a counterproductive, albeit understandable, response to the March 15 incident. They are dangerous.
Forty-nine people were murdered, and 42 remain hospitalized after the attack, which was carried out by Australian national, and self-proclaimed fascist. The 28-year-old, without a criminal record, used two semi-automatic weapons, two shotguns, and a lever-action firearm to commit what New Zealand has recognized as an act of terrorism.
The attacker penned a 74-page manifesto, in which he referred to himself as a “racist” and an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist.” He wrote of hatred toward Jews, Muslims, and immigrants. His political angst seemed primarily targeted toward immigrants, as he described in glowing terms his travels through Pakistan–a Muslim majority country:
“I spent many years travelling through many, many nations. I was treated wonderfully… The varied cultures of the world greeted me with warmth and compassion.”
For the terrorist, it appears, warmth and compassion are only warm and compassionate in a person’s home country. Indeed, if there is an ironic twist in his horrendous acts of violence in Christchurch, he left his own sense of warmth and compassion at home, too, in rural Australia’s Grafton.
To the softly-spoken Australian radicalized at some point during a seven-year global expedition, immigrants were:
“invaders . . . Who colonize other peoples lands… An attack in New Zealand would bring to attention the truth of the assault on our civilisation, that no where (sic) in the world was safe, the invaders were in all of our lands, even in the remotest areas of the world and that there was no where (sic) left to go that was safe and free from mass immigration.”
The incident has sparked a response from social media outlets and government agencies about the pressing need to censor extremist views from the internet. Twitter has removed all of the shooter’s posts since the events of March 15. The live feed he posted of himself in the act of mass murder on Facebook has been removed, and his manifesto has been deleted from Scribd.
The live-streamed footage of his feats has been described by New Zealand law enforcement as “extremely distressing.” New Zealanders face ten-year prison sentences for sharing it on the internet.
The pro-censorship argument has some merit. By limiting hate speech and calls to violence on public forums, fewer people, especially those who may be impressionable or susceptible to radicalization, will have access to it and find themselves inspired to commit acts of what they may perceive as being martyrdom.
The idea, for example, that neo-Nazis could, if they wanted, march through Times Square in New York City bearing anti-Semitic slogans is sickening and harkens back to the days of Nazi Germany and the Civil Rights Movement in the south.
Surely, by being part of a society that confers us rights and privileges, we cede some personal autonomy to that society. Speech that purports to drown the speech of others promotes less speech. Speech that calls upon extremists to use violence against minorities seeks to deny those minorities their rights and privileges.
What point is there in being part of a society, then, when everybody has the right to hate you and express that hatred publicly, for whatever reason? What is the point of society itself if it cannot reign in the destructive inclinations of the extremists among it? Is society not better off censoring the minority to protect the welfare of the majority?
The US Supreme Court’s January ruling in favor of the sacked Spokane Valley Fire Department employee held that religious speech by a public employee was a constitutional right. The court’s April 2014 decision to lift restrictions on political campaign donation limits in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, made it clear that “more speech is freer speech.”
At least in the American context, violence may be condemned, but speaking about it is not. Hate crime laws fly in the face of that, but the Supreme Court has made it very clear that more speech is better than less speech, and censorship has no place in American society.
There is also the matter of policing. Permitting hate speech and extremist websites to operate unfettered gives law enforcement agencies easier access to any risks that may be posed to the public. Anyone who openly declares an intention to commit acts of terrorism or violence in the name of whatever ideology they have, even those we find grotesque, will more readily find themselves under police surveillance.
Censoring that speech doesn’t prevent it. It simply sends it further underground. That makes law enforcement more difficult, placing the public at even greater risk. And it certainly doesn’t prevent the thoughts behind the speech. So while tolerating intolerance may seem counterintuitive, it isn’t counterproductive.
In the words of a post on Raptitude:
“Let idiocy shine a light on itself, that’s what I say. If you tape its mouth shut, we might not recognize it.”
The internet is a deeper and darker place than many people realize, and while there is a certain aesthetic appeal to eradicating hateful speech from mainstream forums, doing so has little basis in constitutional law and makes law enforcement all that more difficult. Unsightly as it might be, it is better to let the bad eggs fester in the open.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of, nor should they be attributed to, CCN.