Terrorist Propaganda and Government Censorship

Russell Blackford

Christchurch, New Zealand, is a beautiful, peaceful city located on the country’s south island. Its people have suffered in recent years from a series of earthquakes (2010 to 2012) that ruined much of the city’s infrastructure and cultural heritage.

Christchurch became internationally notorious on March 15, 2019, when a fanatical racist and anti-Muslim bigot, subsequently identified as Brenton Harrison Tarrant, carried out terrorist atrocities in its suburbs. He used an armory of guns to murder fifty people in total, first at the Al Noor Mosque and then the Linwood Islamic Centre. (Throughout this column, I will, for the sake of simplicity, assume that Tarrant has been correctly identified as the killer and that he is guilty of various other alleged acts. Like others accused of crimes, he is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but it appears at this stage that he does not deny carrying out the mosque attacks.)

Prior to the attacks, Tarrant posted a seventy-four-page manifesto online titled “The Great Replacement.” This explains its author’s motives in considerable detail, though with coded references, passages of sarcasm and irony, and a certain amount of what appears to be sheer mischief-making. All this complicates its interpretation. The manifesto calls for likeminded people to carry out further acts of carnage and terror, including political assassinations. In particular, it urges the murder of various specifically named political leaders.

The New Zealand government has since responded with a range of actions and reassurances, including promises of new, significantly more restrictive, gun laws. As I write, the form that these will take remains unclear, but there is an undoubted will for change. In some ways, the situation resembles that in Australia immediately following the Port Arthur massacre by Martin Bryant, who killed thirty-five people and wounded twenty-three others in April 1996. This provided the impetus for major changes to Australia’s regulation of guns, including the famous buy-back scheme that was implemented in 1996–97. These reforms enjoyed almost universal public support, remain popular two decades later, and have arguably been effective in laying obstacles for would-be mass murderers.

More questionable is a decision by New Zealand’s authorities to ban Tarrant’s manifesto. From one point of view, this seems supportable. Once again, “The Great Replacement” calls for large-scale terrorist activities and specific assassinations. In current circumstances, such calls might well be heeded. White nationalism, separatism, and supremacism (I don’t wish to make any clear distinctions among these) appear to be on the rise in many countries, and there are doubtless fanatics who might be inspired to additional violence by the manifesto and its inflammatory reasoning. Similar considerations apply to other items of terrorist propaganda, including manifestos and instructions distributed by jihadist groups.

This illustrates that there are limits to the sensible rule of thumb that the answer to bad speech is more and better speech. The rule applies well to science, academic speech more generally, and public discussion of ideas. When it comes to incitement of violence, however, more and better speech may be too little as a response and tragically too late. Even John Stuart Mill, the greatest advocate of free thought and discussion in history, imagined some situations where we cannot tolerate speech that incites immediate violence. In today’s world of global communications, widespread violence can be provoked by speech geographically remote from the speaker, as with the numerous deaths and injuries inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989.

All that being said, the power to censor is a dangerous one to entrust to any government. Governments will always be tempted to suppress material that cuts across their particular values, ideas, and agendas.

Where the power to censor exists, it should be used very sparingly, and we should subject it to eternal vigilance. In this case, “The Great Replacement” reveals much about its author’s worldview and motivations, and it indirectly sheds light on the thinking of others with similarly twisted views of the world. Thus, it merits careful study, not only by politicians and police officials. The facts about its contents, their likely meaning, and their sociopolitical significance are matters of scholarly and public interest. Journalists, academic scholars, and concerned citizens all have an important interest in being able to examine the manifesto for themselves—and draw their own conclusions—rather than relying on reports from governmental sources and whichever political commentators viewed the document immediately after the mosque attacks. All such reports are likely to be self-serving, agenda-driven, and otherwise biased.

Clearly enough, terrorist propaganda can be distributed in ways that are intended, and are likely, to whip up political violence. If, however, liberal democracies seek to establish a crime of inciting violence by distributing terrorist propaganda, the elements of the crime should be narrowly defined and difficult to prove. Among other things, state prosecutors should be required to demonstrate actual intent to incite terrorist violence.

In New Zealand, it is now a crime even to possess a copy of Tarrant’s manifesto, whether in printed form or as an electronic file. It follows that many journalists and scholars in New Zealand might be breaking the law merely by possessing a document whose content, meaning, and significance merit analysis. Decent people may be breaking the law by carrying out the important responsibilities of journalists and scholars. This is a deeply unsatisfactory situation.

Here, then, is yet another example of a common phenomenon since the 9/11 jihadist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Too often, governments respond to the global terrorist threat with authoritarian measures, restricting the freedoms of citizens who are in no way involved in terrorism or its advocacy.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.


Christchurch, New Zealand, is a beautiful, peaceful city located on the country’s south island. Its people have suffered in recent years from a series of earthquakes (2010 to 2012) that ruined much of the city’s infrastructure and cultural heritage. Christchurch became internationally notorious on March 15, 2019, when a fanatical racist and anti-Muslim bigot, subsequently …

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