Declan Power: 'It's time to protect ourselves from the seeds of extremism'

The horrific murders of 49 Muslim people attending Friday prayers at two Mosques in Christchurch will have rocked New Zealand to its core.

However, while all decent people will feel revulsion, we don’t have the luxury to wallow in this without taking note of additional elements.

For every action there is reaction. For too long in Western society we have had our minds concentrated on violence from extremist Islam. It stands to reason that if the Islamic world and those culturally connected to it can have an element of extremist mindset capable of violence, then so too can other cultures.

Shocking as the killings are, the actions, method and mindset are similar to those of other extremists produced by Western culture. With Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who killed 69 in Oslo and Utoya in 2011, we saw such a mindset.

Similarly to Brenton Tarrant, the lead suspect in the New Zealand killings, there was a theme of white supremacy accompanied by a long and rambling manifesto explaining their motivations online.

In addition to his repugnant and extremist views, Breivik turned out to have a number of mental health issues. This is likely to be the theme that emerges as the facts unfold in New Zealand. I’m not suggesting the alleged perpetrator is insane, however, rather that they probably have developed a number of anti-social elements to their personality.

A common theme with people from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities that have developed extremist tendencies is a strong sense of victimhood coupled with frustration at a perceived lack of opportunities. Such distorted thinking has long been the door-opener to extremist thinking, from those who supported the Nazi party’s rise in the 1930s to those who supported Isil in recent times.

However, the weak point in the armour of Western societies is how to recognise and react to the seeds of extremism. For a while now on these pages and elsewhere I’ve been advocating a State approach to countering extremism within our societies on this island.

There are two aspects to this. One is acknowledging the role the online world has had as a means of radicalisation. It has atomised the cohesion in society that formally used to prevent such matters. The EU recognised this by funding programmes such as that led by Professor Maura Conway, of DCU, who leads a successful campaign getting online providers to shut down sites that peddle hate propaganda.

However, programmes like that alone will not help contain the problem. This must be done within our communities.

I’ve never suggested countering extremism should be limited to one community. We have pioneered State-wide and whole-of-government approaches to serious threats to our population from paedophilia and suicidal-ideation. So why not develop a national counter-extremism plan and programme?

If we leave this role purely to the security services, it will only be dealt with when a security threat arises. However, long-term investment in countering violent extremism starts at a much earlier point. It is about sensitising teachers, public health workers, community development activists and sports coaches to recognise the early seeds of extremist thinking and expression.

It involves sensitising our law enforcement and judiciary to recognise that when somebody comes before the courts on a relatively minor charge, they may be embarking on some sort of perverse crusade rather than a simple criminal enterprise.

Isn’t it finally time we considered how to protect ourselves from the seeds of extremism rather than continually responding to the aftermath and wringing our hands?

Declan Power is an independent security and defence analyst with experience of counter-extremism and terrorism in Africa and the Middle East. He leads the Terrorism and International Security programme at City Colleges Dublin

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