What happens when the dog-whistles are answered?

Friends of a missing man grieve outside a refuge centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, 17 March 2019. A gunman killed 50 worshippers at the Al Noor Masjid and Linwood Masjid on 15 March. A suspected gunman, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant of Australia, has appeared in court on on the morning of 16 March and was charged with murder. EPA-EFE/MICK TSIKAS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

There are lessons from the Christchurch massacre for South African society, where uncontrolled race and xenophobic baiting may yet find expression at the end of a barrel of a crazed supremacist’s gun.

For some reason, not much has been made of which websites were open on the Christchurch killer Bretton Tarrant’s phone alongside his Facebook page through which he live-streamed his executions. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the live-stream was swiftly removed from Facebook; more plausibly it’s because people have been urged by researchers of right-wing terror not to spread the shooter’s extremist message and this appears to have largely been followed.

Either way, it is surely alarming, though perhaps unsurprising, that one of the pages Tarrant had open was the Twitter-feed of the President of the United States, Donald Trump. A page, presumably judging by its prominence on his phone, the killer would have looked through in the build-up to executing Muslims at prayer.

What was he looking for, one may surmise. To keep an eye, in the minutes before the attack, on the latest live Twitter updates to see if any more anti-Muslim keywords had just been used by the supposed leader of the free world? Or perhaps Tarrant simply flipped through the president’s tweeting history for confidence and inspiration — because there sure were enough bits of venom for him to latch on to.

With so many vents and bigoted outbursts against so many minority groups, it’s easy to lose sight of just what exactly the Islamophobic president has put on the public record about his views on Muslims.

Apart from his immigration ban specifically targeting Muslim-majority countries, sharply cutting the number of Muslim refugees admitted (and conversely saying he wanted to prioritise admitting Christian refugees), he’s also called them animals (August 2018), said “Islam hates us” (March 2016) and hinted that the source of the United Kingdom’s problems is because the country is “trying hard to disguise their massive Muslim problem” (December 2015).

When Mike Pompeo addressed a church group in Wichita in 2014, he had a similar message to give:

This threat to America is from people who deeply believe that Islam is the way and the light and the only answer. We need to understand that they believe it is religiously driven to wipe Christians off the face of the earth.” While stopping short of an explicit call to arms against them, he did continue by saying:

They abhor Christians and will continue to press us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight.” No nuance about America being a diverse nation not only of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants or that he realised that his words could be putty in the hands of violent extremists. Just a determined messianic sureness.

Pompeo was not some loony on the fringes; at the time he was a Republican Congressman (though granted, a member of the Tea Party). A few years later, Trump made him CIA Director, followed swiftly by a promotion to Secretary of State. It is he who is now responsible for implementing American foreign policy; the second-highest ranking cabinet minister. He is one of the most prominent outward faces of America to the world and, quite simply, what he says and how he says it matters.

His official note of condemnation to the Christchurch attacks vaguely spoke to solidarity with “the government and people of New Zealand”, but failed to specifically mention the Muslim communities affected. His boss’s tweet, unsurprisingly, also failed to mention Muslims.

Being outraged at this is not being oversensitively churlish, for two reasons.

First, because it is those communities who are most in need of solace right now. It’s a short step away from Trump’s “Islam hates us” to Pompeo’s “they will continue to press us until we… stand and fight” to Tarrant’s “this (my action) is an act of revenge against Islam”.

Extremist researchers have been saying for years that Trump’s incendiary vile has normalised divisive sentiment against Muslims in America. Now, with Christchurch, it’s gone global. Previously, his ghastly words were used as inspiration for the anti-Semitic and racist shows of force in Charlottesville. Those words were dog-whistles to those disposed towards violence, those who were seeking a cover for their rage and aggression.

Second, when leaders fail to explicitly denounce extremist actions, the vacuum of silence further acts as another kind of dog-whistle to give them succour.

Words, and often lack of words, matter from people in power.

In a similar vein, South African society has had its own share of dog-whistles emanating from our political leaders. While we’ve largely been spared the use of politics to sow division among religious groups, this is hardly a panacea, since our dog-whistles are all to do with race and xenophobia.

Christchurch should serve as a stark warning to South Africans, where the race-baiting and xenophobic-baiting continues unabated. We need to acknowledge that like the Trump-Pompeo-Tarrant continuum, the messages of hate that EFF leader Julius Malema spreads about other race groups carry with it the destructive power to be taken by others and snowballed into rapid-fire bullets of destruction.

Malema has already been found guilty of hate speech in 2011, although he recently escaped censure for saying “we are not calling for the slaughtering of white people” – a dog-whistle if ever there was one. Other leaders like Dali Mpofu have yet to be convicted of hate-speech. But the power of their rants – against white people, against Indians, against farmers, against critical journalists – may yet find expression at the end of a barrel of a crazed supremacist’s gun.

Elsewhere, we’ve had to endure Johannesburg’s Mayor Herman Mashaba suggesting the unimaginable health risks posed by African immigrants on locals. Completing this ghastly triumvirate of intolerance is the collection of people exposed using the k-word freely to barely disguise their abhorrence for people of colour.

All of these words represent currents existing on multiple frequencies. It is not enough for their speakers to argue that violence wasn’t explicitly called for. For the words themselves, like radio waves, do not end when the speakers stop speaking, but go on forever. The farther the waves move from their source, the more they spread out — and as in Christchurch, have the power to cause lasting destruction. DM


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