The spectre of terrorism is present throughout the West (and far beyond), but due to our recent past in New Zealand, this threat plays on our mind in unique ways.
On March 15, 2019, 51 Muslim worshippers were killed by a lone-Australian terrorist, inspired in part by the actions of Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik. More explicitly though, as Foreign Policy notes, it was French ideas (including those from Renaud Camus) which inspired Brenton Tarrant to take this extreme action.
This was not the only French connection to these tragic events on the other side of the globe. Exactly two months after the Christchurch Attack, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and French President, Emmanuel Macron, met in Paris to found the Christchurch Call to Action. This initiative has since gathered together a community of over 120 governments, online service providers, and civil society organisations, working to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.
While it is entirely consistent with the role of the state to protect their citizens from attacks both foreign and domestic, we often pay for safety in the currency of freedom. It is crucial that civil society operates as a watchdog for government overreach that undermines crucial civil liberties, especially the freedom of speech, which founds so many other basic freedoms.
As the Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union New Zealand, an organisation with sister-groups across the anglosphere, I am deeply invested in the idea that the right to free expression and speech makes our communities safer, not more dangerous. Yet, in line with that, I must spend a lot of my time explaining that direct incitement to violence, and violent extremist material online which promotes or directly calls for terrorism, is not protected by freedom of expression and falls ‘beyond the pale.’
This is because violence is the antithesis of speech.
However, noting that direct incitement to violence is not protected by freedom of expression admittedly introduces an element of subjectivity in distinguishing between direct incitement and more general expression of opinion.
This distinction, and the difficulty in assessing it, is illustrated in a recent document released by the security agency responsible for counter-terrorism in New Zealand. In October 2022, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) released ‘Know the Signs: a guide to identify signs of violent extremism.’ This guide outlined key features that could indicate an individual's intent to commit a violent attack, such as withdrawing from community, possessing instructions for how to make weapons, discussing willingness to die for their beliefs, and others.
Many were concerned about this guide, claiming it simply relegated all those with opinions that differed with the mainstream, or ‘developing a hostile “us vs them” world view’, into extremists and possible terrorists. There is particular sensitivity to this in New Zealand, as an especially censorious government continues to divide the nation and denigrate those with opinions that differ from theirs. Initiatives such as the Christchurch Call, according to some, threaten to further enable state censorship, and punish any who express dissenting or provocative ideas- all in the name of counter-extremism and safety. Given that there is currently legislation before Parliament that would allow the state to charge someone as a terrorist if they possess ‘objectionable material’, even though it has nothing to do with terrorism or the promotion of terrorism at all, illustrates why some are concerned.
A key distinction between the NZSIS guide, and other material that undermines the right for others to freely express themselves, is the fact that it explicitly relates only to the threat of violence. The guide 'talks specifically about violent extremism rather than non-violent forms of extremism.’ This is an important caveat.
But what about those that claim ‘words are violence’? Seemingly daily, we see academics dismissed from university posts for ‘wrong-think’, and activists and government bureaucrats patholgising the role of speech in dividing our societies. Should words be treated as violence if they are ‘harmful’. In reality, words are the opposite of violence, and we must never stop asserting that.
That is what we claimed following another terrorist attack in New Zealand in 2021 by an Islamic extremist. We wrote:
‘Violence in the name of ideology is the polar opposite of free speech. It is the ultimate attempt to silence those who do not share your worldview. Differences of political and religious opinion must be navigated with reason and dialogue. Never through violence. Never through fear.
Those who refuse to resolve ideological differences with words are the ones who turn to violence. Those who refuse to respectfully engage in civil dialogue with those they disagree with are the ones who become hateful extremists in the first place.
Freedom of speech — the fundamental human right to peacefully express one’s opinion — is an inherently non-violent principle. This is why we seek to protect it.’
As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff note, this claim will make our societies ‘more anxious and more willing to justify physical harm.’ Lukianoff went on to claim, ‘Redefining the expression of opinion as violence is a formula for a chain reaction of endless violence, repression, and regression.’
It was Sigmund Freud who claimed ‘The first human being who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilisation.’ A culture of free speech that resolutely asserts the right for all to openly express their beliefs is crucial if our countries are to be safe from those who would use violence and terrorism to advance their cause rather than reason, dialogue, and debate. While censorship may appear to be a simple solution to remove the ideas we most despise, in reality, it is a short-term fix with a high price. It forces potentially dangerous viewpoints underground where they fester and remain unchallenged.
Counter-intuitively, free speech is the greatest preventative to extreme ideologies that advocate violence because it places these perspectives in the open where they can be challenged and, through debate and reason, revealed to be faulty. Our governments and security services must keep this in mind.