Terrorism laws are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. They may be needed, but our main focus should be on preventing people from being radicalised in the first place, Marc Daalder writes.

The New Lynn terror attack underscores the ongoing threat that violent extremism poses to New Zealand and highlights the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the March 15 terrorist attack, which have yet to be enacted.

Much of the focus in the coming weeks will understandably be on New Zealand’s terrorism laws, which were in the process of reform when the Isis-inspired terrorist launched his attack. 

These changes may well be needed. Certainly it is a gap in our law that someone caught clearly planning a terrorist act might not be guilty of an offence – even if that charge proves difficult to actually enforce.

But a crackdown on terrorist activity should only be one part of our response to violent extremism. It is, in essence, a last resort. Laws to limit the ability of those convicted of a terrorism-related crime to reoffend should be seen as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. They are needed when the rest of the system fails.

Social cohesion

One of the key recommendations about what the rest of the system should look like, from the massive Royal Commission report issued in December, has largely gone unnoticed.

“New Zealand will never be immune from violent extremism and terrorism. Even with the best systems in the world, a determined would-be terrorist could carry out an attack in New Zealand in the future,” the commission found.

But what if we could prevent many or even most at-risk people from becoming determined would-be terrorists in the first place?

This is the role of social cohesion. Traditional approaches to countering violent extremism have involved an individual focus on de-radicalisation. This is still a valuable tactic to deal with some people, but the theory behind social cohesion says that the bulk of prevention work can be accomplished through improving material and social circumstances across society.

“Social cohesion exists where people feel part of society, family and personal relationships are strong, differences among people are respected and people feel safe and supported by others. Social cohesion is an ideal rather than a goal to be achieved and must continually be nurtured and grown,” the commission wrote.

Violent extremism

To understand why social cohesion is so important, we must understand the drivers behind violent extremism. 

Extremism, on its own, requires a flattening of the world into two sides. It’s an “us versus them” or black-and-white view of life, in which every person one meets or sees or hears about falls into one of two categories.

Extremism hopes to force people to pick a side and it often thrives on victimisation. Take Isis, which hopes through its terrorism to spark Islamophobic state crackdowns and mob violence, pushing more Muslims to side with it. Or white supremacy, which is rooted in a belief that others – brown people, or Jews, or immigrants – have usurped the white race’s rightful place. Any white person who does not side with the white supremacists is viewed as a traitor or an unwitting pawn of the “other”.

It is only through upping the contrast and the stakes that extremists can move on to what is sometimes the next step: violence. To perpetrate terrorist violence often requires a dehumanisation of the victims of one’s attack.

But the vast majority of extremists do not move on to violence. Those who do are struggling with other issues, and violence, in this context, can often be seen as an attempt to regain agency.

All of this is, of course, a generalisation. It does not apply to every violent extremist. But it is enough of a trend for us to take it into account when figuring out how to prevent people from going down that path.

Preventing extremism

As the Royal Commission wrote: “Social cohesion can contribute to preventing or countering extremism. This is because cohesive and resilient communities are better placed to resist and counter the risk of radicalisation and mobilisation to violent extremism and terrorism.”

It is harder to dehumanise people when you are embraced by your community. You don’t feel a lack of agency if you have meaningful interactions with those around you.

In March last year, I interviewed Caleb Cain, a former extremist who was radicalised and then de-radicalised via the internet.

“‘There’s a reason that young men and young people are falling into this. It’s not because they watch propaganda on YouTube. That’s a supply thing, but there’s a demand for that content. It’s not even necessarily that they’re racist, that they’re demanding that content, it’s that they’re searching for something,” he told me.

“Everybody’s isolated and when they’re isolated, they don’t have purpose, they don’t have meaning, they feel disenfranchised economically – and that’s happening as well – they get online and some far-right figure like [white nationalist YouTuber Stefan] Molyneux comes in and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got all these problems’. And they nail the problems, one after another. They say, ‘and here’s why. Here’s the solution. And here’s who causing it’.”

Social cohesion prevents those gaps from emerging in the first place.

It’s a powerful antidote to the loss of physical, real-life communities in the 21st Century (and in the pandemic era).

“We live in this world where, not to sound like Jordan Peterson, but post-modernism has deconstructed myth, it’s deconstructed social traditions. And it did that for a lot of good reasons – a lot of those things were oppressive – but we never replaced it with anything. There’s no myth anymore. Everybody is just in their own little bubble,” Cain said back in March 2020.

“People used to go to church. That’s gone. People used to have unions. All the unions got busted, that’s gone. People to go out to picnics. Everybody stays inside now, that’s gone.”

Of course, the internet can create new, positive communities. But far too often it either drags people into negative, increasingly extreme spaces, or isolates them altogether.

Despite the potential for social cohesion to address many of these issues – and despite the Royal Commission’s major focus on it – the topic has received almost no mainstream attention.

A consultation on how to build social cohesion in New Zealand was launched the same day as the hate speech consultation, but wasn’t mentioned in any news articles.

On the one hand, this is understandable. As this article demonstrates, social cohesion is abstract and hard to define. It’s not a concrete policy proposal but an open question: How do we make New Zealand a place where everyone has a sense of belonging?

Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Yes, social cohesion isn’t a silver bullet here. It won’t prevent every at-risk person from being radicalised.

But if it reduces even the slightest bit the risk of a terror attack like we saw on Friday, isn’t it worth trying?

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment