“The nihilist … acts out the violence that so many others perpetrate verbally and virtually on the web: he is, in that sense, the avenging angel of post-truth and the rant made flesh.”
- The Revolt of the Public

The cold-blooded murder of 50 persons while at prayer at mosque in Christchurch can be explained only in the starkest terms. The perpetrator is a moral cipher. Human depravity was at work. Even in our ingenuous age, this shouldn’t surprise us. There are oldsters still around with a lived memory of Nazi extermination camps. Many can bear witness to the slaughter of millions in China and Cambodia. Even as I write these words, whole populations are being decimated by sectarian violence in the Levant.

Saints and humanitarians might wish it otherwise, but there was never a time that transcended wickedness.

Saints and humanitarians might wish it otherwise, but there was never a time that transcended wickedness. Only the form changes: in every age, it assumes the garb and language of our fondest illusions. The righteous killer of the 20th century was an ideological zealot within a mass movement. He destroyed lives with abandon because they blocked his way to utopia – and he committed his crimes on the industrial plan, systematically, wholesale, so that we found it difficult to grasp the sheer scale of the horror. Weak-minded persons to this day deny the truth of it.

A different kind of monster stalks our age. I have called him the nihilist: he represents the fatal step beyond the everyday negations and repudiations that so inflame the public today. He and his kind disgorge manifestos but lack any coherent ideology. He belongs, typically, to an online sect, and exchanges venomous dreams with other distempered souls, but he lives and acts on his own. He obeys only his impulses: no Fuehrer or Duce or First Party Secretary can summon him to action. He is relatively affluent and comfortable – the Christchurch shooter travelled widely in Asia – yet the world, for him, is a hopelessly alien and corrupt place, and its redeemer must begin by demolition. Destruction and mass murder he thus imagines to be a form of progress.

This is our peculiar style of wickedness. That is how it was at Christchurch.

The nihilist is a creature of our information environment. He comes to life but briefly, to make carnage viral. He feeds and thrives entirely on our attention and so he invites us into his nightmare. In the digital era, ruled by the image and the rant, we have become unwitting participants to his every atrocity. The effect is personal and indelible. Holocaust deniers can be found in meaningful numbers, but I doubt we’ll ever see a single denier of Christchurch.

By gunning down innocent Muslims at prayer, the killer hoped, explicitly, to deepen our political divisions. It is depressing to observe how quickly he succeeded. In the darkling plain of identity wars that is the web, murder by one point of view triggers a kind of celebration, a victory dance, by its opponents. Political rage is now justified. Wickedness is expanded from one to all who hold the killer’s opinion. Blame for bloodshed is somehow detached from the perpetrator and generalised to a policy, to government or society – to Donald Trump. Only yesterday, of course, the entire religion of Islam and Angela Merkel bore the blame for individual acts of terror.

We stand, all of us, on the ragged edge of this digital transvaluation. Something extraordinary is happening that allows vicious characters to speak with passionate conviction and brutal killers to persuade themselves that they are the hero of the story. There is, among people of good will, a natural outcry for something to be done – but a lack of understanding, I fear, about what that something must entail. Laws that ban guns or hate speech or immigrants have proved ineffectual, for good reason. The nihilist emerges out of a toxic environment: specifically, the global dark night of the soul of the political web. In the clear light of morning, he will shrivel to nothing like the Wicked Witch. The conflict, therefore, is shifting to the domain of morality and away from policy or law enforcement questions. The unit of engagement will be the individual rather than the state. Each of us, in a sense, will decide what comes next.

To the extent that we model, in our words and behaviour, the democratic faith in a plurality of opinions, we will bring moral clarity to politics from which the nihilist can only shrink away. To the extent that we confuse partisanship with righteousness, and forgive murderers so we can blame presidents, we will play the part of Frankenstein and give life and strength to monsters who will repay us with ever more terrible versions of Christchurch.

We stand, I said, on the ragged edge: but the choice is ours whether to draw back or plunge into mayhem.


The Lowy Institute is part of the  Pacific Research Program