‘Except by Chance’: The Christchurch Inquiry

Extending and recapitulating the War on Terror

In December last year, a New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) presented in an extensive report the findings of its investigation into the ‘March 15th terrorist attacks’ on two Christchurch mosques. Led by a Supreme Court judge and a former New Zealand diplomat and ambassador, the inquiry had been originally tasked with determining the conditions and causes of the attacks, and examining the events and activities leading up to them—those that revolved around the life of the perpetrator, as well as those that concerned the actions (or inaction) of ‘relevant Public sector agencies’. Costing $17 million, spanning almost two years, and drawing on a broad range of material—from the investigation of the various agencies, to the engagement of international experts, to consultation with Muslim communities and organisations—the report is the state’s final say on the matter of the attacks. It is as if, in seeking to produce a conclusive account of the event, the inquiry aspired to bring it to closure.

Shaped by a tortuous and halting process, and marred by various complications as well as several extensions to its deadline, the final report has met with uncertainty. While New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern expressed immediate and enthusiastic support for the inquiry’s findings and officially agreed, in principle, to all of its recommendations, others quickly pointed to its limitations and failures. In particular, the inquiry has been criticised for its exceptional lack of transparency and its eschewing of any open consultation procedures, including in the framing of its terms of reference, in the compiling of evidence and submissions, and in the release of its findings. This has resulted in a very limited mandate, which from the outset foreclosed any possibility of prosecution or even determination of liability. In addition, hearings and interviews with state agencies and actors were, notably, conducted in private, and precluded any contestation of evidence from the individuals or groups engaged by these bodies. Most egregious, however, is the issuing of suppression orders on information gathered in the process, which will only become available to the public after thirty years. This includes over 70,000 pages of evidence and submissions, detailing interviews with hundreds of Crown, government and public-sector agencies. 

For many in Muslim and left communities, the ineffectiveness of the inquiry was a foregone conclusion well before the release of the report. Given the limitations set by the terms of reference in particular, it was clear early on that the question of ‘accountability’ was one unlikely to be resolved. However, this call for accountability resonated to begin with, and continues to do so, with good reason, even as it continues to meet with disappointment. As the relationship between the state and organised white supremacy in Western plutocracies becomes increasingly characterised by outright and unapologetic collaboration, more recently spectacularised at Capitol Hill, accounting for violence and loss of life becomes a site of cruel optimism: an insistent if precarious appeal to justice with little hope of its attainment. Thus it is worth considering not so much what the inquiry failed to do per se but what it achieved in its failure, as well as what it revealed in its lack of disclosure. To cite Sara Ahmed’s well-known description for things that work because they fail to deliver what they promise: what is the ‘nonperformative’ of the inquiry and its report? 

At the very least, we might consider how, with unerring though likely unwitting proficiency, the report essentially acts as an endorsement of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Over perhaps the last decade, CVE has emerged as the most significant and widely circulating development in counterterrorism policy, its tenets easily proliferating across the globe and readily adopted by governments and policymakers as well as a variety of ‘stakeholders’. This last term carries the kind of ambiguity appropriate to the mandate and work of CVE. As a program that ostensibly strives for a ‘holistic’ approach to counterterrorism, it incorporates and mixes various discourses, techniques and technologies from public and private as well as civil sectors. From outreach and engagement, to capacity building and education, to public relations and development aid, to joint surveillance partnerships between policing and non-policing institutions, the expansive range of strategies used in the CVE framework reflected a novel development in the techno-politics of the War on Terror, the result of which has been a form of counterterrorism that appears less like a set of government policies and more like an industry. 

Here in Aotearoa, CVE first made its appearance in academia in recent years, where it brought together a range of institutions including the university, psychology, police, corrections, the Human Rights Commission and Muslim community organisations in a fledgling attempt to establish a foothold. Given its stated aim as a ‘preventative’ rather than ‘reactionary’ measure, the lack of anything resembling organised or historical forms of ‘extremism’ does little to diminish CVE’s entitlement to institutional presence. Organised around an anticipatory and future-oriented logic, the program’s legitimacy is mandated retroactively, the projected possibility of future violence having always already been established. Now, with this possibility having been realised, the presence of CVE has not only been ideologically vindicated but also acquired quasi-formal approval by the RCI’s final report. 

A glossary reading of the report’s recommendations is enough to appreciate the robust nature of this mandate. From a list of forty-four recommendations, almost half centre on counterterrorism and the expansion of its existing apparatus, while the remaining set is unevenly distributed between sections on ‘firearms licensing’ and ‘social cohesion and diversity’—with only a meagre three dedicated to the needs and well-being of survivors and affected families. Alongside establishing a new national intelligence and security agency that is ‘well-resourced’, the report explicitly recommends ‘developing a counter-terrorism strategy which includes countering violent extremism’. Part of this would be a significantly expanded framework for ‘information sharing’ between various agencies and the provision of ‘horizon scanning supported by deep expertise’, as well as establishing a new advisory group on counterterrorism, alongside an elaborate funding program for research on violent extremism and terrorism. 

In the executive summary of the report, the authors insist that ‘full implementation of our recommendations will result in a better organised counterterrorism effort with enhanced capacity and capability and a less restrictive legislative framework’. The ominous naivete of such an expression of intent is carried further when they continue: ‘we wish to see discussion about counter-terrorism normalised’. As they elaborate, the full scope as well as duplicity of what has recently been described in critical scholarship as ‘CVE mania’ is placed on display: 

Since 2015, successive governments have been reluctant to proceed with a public-facing counter-terrorism strategy. One reason for this was to avoid stigmatising Muslim communities further. But, had such a strategy been shared with the public and also incorporated a ‘see something, say something’ policy, it is possible that aspects of the individual’s planning and preparation may have been reported to counter-terrorism agencies. With the benefit of hindsight, such reporting would have provided the best chance of disrupting the terrorist attack.

A remarkable passage, which through an astounding turn of historical amnesia posits an entirely fictional concern with ‘stigmatising Muslim communities’ as evidence of the need for an even more expansive regime of surveillance—a regime that in all likelihood would result in the stigmatisation and policing of vulnerable and racialised communities, Muslims included. 

Here the implications of a post-9/11 governmentality that yokes together securitisation and a ‘post-racial’ common sense are palpable enough, and it is taken to its logical conclusion in a set of recommendations that repeats the call to ‘normalise’ counterterrorism discourse and, more astonishingly, makes an explicit appeal to enlist the general population for the purposes and prerogatives of CVE. For instance, one of the report’s recommendations enjoins the government to create opportunities for ongoing public discussions of counterterrorism, and to do so in part by ‘supporting the public to understand how to respond when they recognise the concerning behaviours and incidents that may demonstrate a person’s potential for engaging in violent extremism and terrorism’. The generalisation and socialisation of policing and surveillance is thus sanctioned as a pedagogical exercise and a mark of the state’s benevolence and responsibility towards the public. 

Put simply, this is a report that condenses and recapitulates the full gamut of martial presuppositions bequeathed by the last two decades, extending the War on Terror’s ideological license at precisely the historical moment when its expiry might have been expedited. As noted by advocates and scholars critical of CVE, the recent discursive shifts whereby counterterrorism seems no longer exclusively focused on the threat of ‘Islamic’ extremism, and whereby such policies also encompass in their framing an ascendant far Right and organised white supremacy, do not necessarily entail a diminution of the apparatus of racial policing and surveillance, or a curtailment of the state’s capacity and orientation in this regard. The RCI’s report is a testament to this observation and, indeed, through its racial variegation of distinct categories of extremism, it furnishes grounds for this apparatus’s virtual inviolability as well as its expansion.

It has been noted by some on the Left that the inquiry essentially ‘whitewashes’ security and intelligence by failing to hold the agencies to account. For all intents and purposes, this is true. But if we are to get a sense of the internal logic of the RCI and what its conclusions can tell us about the regime it legitimises, it is worth giving a little more attention to its findings. The terms of reference required the RCI to determine whether the relevant public-sector agencies received information that could have alerted them in the lead-up to the attack; to determine whether there was a failure in information sharing between the agencies; whether there was a failure to meet any relevant standards or criteria of operation; and whether there was a failure to anticipate the planned attack because of an ‘inappropriate concentration of resources or priorities on other terrorism threats’. The report absolves the Security and Intelligence Services (SIS) on all counts, but it is the last one that seems to have been instrumental in the making of this decision. 

Next to the investigation of the ‘individual’ perpetrator, the examination of the SIS is perhaps the most elaborate, and in the findings there is a lengthy explanation of the SIS, its capacities, its prerogatives and its recent history. It is noted that the question of a maldistribution of resources and attention was the ‘most pointed’ for the inquiry, and what follows is a thoroughly considered set of exonerations, including the notes that the SIS had ‘comparatively little social licence’ and ‘limited capability and capacity’, and that until recently the institution had been in ‘a fragile state’. The authors then explain that during the operational period that came under their assessment, there indeed was a ‘primary, but not exclusive, focus of the counter-terrorism resources on what was seen as the presenting threat of Islamist extremist terrorism’, but that the ‘inappropriate concentration of resources’ was not ‘why the individual’s planning and preparation for his terrorist attack was not detected’. Of course, the report does not go on to elaborate an alternative causality, since it is not required to do so. Instead, it simply insists on delinking and bracketing the failures of the SIS as a potential cause, and it does so precisely by reiterating the agency’s lack of capacity and capability—limitations no doubt due to the very ‘inappropriate concentration of resources’ explicitly stated in its account. 

To give a clearer picture of this tortured logic, it is worth briefly recounting some of the steps through which it unfolds. First, it is noted that the main period of assessment, between 2016 and 2019, finds a focus of resources on Islamist extremism. It is then noted that in 2016 the SIS sought to establish a baseline picture of other emerging threats but would do so when it had capacity. The contradiction is already apparent, but the explanation continues undeterred. The reason for concentrating resources on one category of terrorism was, according to the report, due to a lack of a ‘comparative risk analysis’, as well as a lack of an ‘informed system-wide decision’ that could have been made ‘with the knowledge that there were other potential threats of terrorism that were not well understood’. This eventually leads to the conclusion that ‘given the operational security that the individual maintained, the legislative authorising environment in which the counter-terrorism effort operates and the limited capability and capacity of the counter-terrorism agencies, there was no plausible way he could have been detected except by chance’. Through an inversion worthy of the crudest formulations of ideology, it is concluded that an institution entrusted with the detection and prevention of terrorism was not failed by its own miscalculations but by the vagaries of chance itself. 

Of course, in such a determination it is the very categorisation of particular ‘types’ of terrorism that enable this logic. Highlighting the ‘presenting threat of Islamist extremism’ as the primary cause of error leads the investigation along a peculiar and tortuous rationale that arrives at an interesting proposition: that what counts most is not the incontrovertible fact of an institution’s failure to prevent an act of violence or the clearly systemic aspects of this failure but the fact that the act of violence, in retrospect, did not appear in the form in which it was anticipated by the institution. In this way, the SIS is not held to account by the terms of the real world in which things happen, or indeed by the terms of the mandate by which it was established as an institution responsible for guaranteeing ‘national security’ and the public’s safety. Instead, it is held to account by the terms it, as an institution, had set itself. Accordingly, its operational basis is redeemed, even as its failures are recorded: in a sense, the report’s archiving of the agency’s failure is a way of absolving it, and in an additionally strange twist, the consistency of the institution’s practice with a racial logic comes to vindicate it in the context of the racial violence that is its lethal consequence. 

This is an astonishing set of findings, to be sure, but one that is consistent with the track record of the RCI as a Crown-mandated practice. Historians and legal scholars have noted, in various capacities and contexts, the extent to which inquiries and inquests have historically functioned to protect the Crown and the state, and to render these entities and their institutions immune to criminal proceedings and liability. These accounts have also amply documented the extent to which such investigations have in the process been conditioned by the structural relations of class, gender and race. More importantly, and in the context of settler-colonial societies where they have had a markedly long history, inquiries and inquests have faithfully acted as part of the political management of marginalised and, in particular, Indigenous groups. In this regard, and more tellingly, these processes have shown themselves to be informed by a logic orienting them, beyond their specific contexts and terms of reference, towards the determination of what Sherene Razack called the ‘timeliness of death’. If some bodies are, structurally speaking, considered as always already dead, or as more dead than others, then can any individual or institution be held accountable? Can there be negligence or failure where particular forms of life are seen as dispensable or perishable anyway?

Such questions acquire greater salience as the possibility of an official coronial inquest looms on the horizon. But they are questions that also become pressing in the wider national and global politics of viral catastrophe. As many have variously noted since the early days of its onset, the pandemic has appeared as a crise révélatrice: an apocalyptic moment of revelation whereby the convergence of various crises becomes illuminated in a flash of history. Characterising a year that began with devastating infernos on one side of the globe and ended with a white-supremacist ‘insurrection’ on the other, COVID-19 has become for many a metonymic lens telescoping the bigger picture in which we see the deeper transformations of a planet on the verge of mass extinction. As well as the outright and devastating loss of life wrought by it, and its instrumentalisation by political and economic elites to expand the infrastructures of extraction, exploitation, incarceration, deportation and militarisation, the pandemic seems to have galvanised those who now personify the Capitalocene, and who are well aware of the unprecedented transformations for which they are disproportionately responsible. It has also consolidated the calculus through which their reign, and its planetary toll, is exacted. 

This calculus, as Dionne Brand recently put it, is one of life and death, the narrative means by which their distribution and organisation find sanction, and the discursive means by which their various futurities may be anticipated and regulated through market-like logics of speculation. As we have just seen, these logics acquire an increasingly hegemonic hold, presiding as they do over the minutest determinations and measurements of life, life’s loss, and quantifiable forms of death. An inquiry charged with identifying ‘changes that could prevent such terrorist attacks in the future’ can only do so with the presupposition of further and imminent violence, which, moreover, can be categorised and in the process of such categorisation anticipated on the basis of ‘its having already happened’. To this extent, ‘horizon scanning’ is geared not so much to instantiating unknowns or unknowables but to securing against them, mapping out the future on the basis of what is already known and recognisable—which is nothing more than cynical resignation to the systematicity of institutional failure, the unavoidability of violence and the value-coding of aggregate forms of life, in accordance with the dictates of race, class or speciesism. Of course, the eventuation of violence, crisis and catastrophe acts as surety of the speculative logic, retroactively vindicating its anticipation of disaster, and furnishing grounds for its expansion as an information-, data- and knowledge-harvesting algorithm. Formed by an imaginary that replicates that of finance, this is a calculus that turns future or potential losses into sites of present accumulation. 

What has become more evident than ever in the age of COVID-19 is what has been active for some time prior: the work of differential valuations of life and the calculability of aggregate forms of death at the core of (post)-neoliberal regimes. If it is difficult to understand the peculiar findings of the RCI outside of this logic, it is equally difficult to imagine a political climate more conducive to its technocratic normalisation than that of New Zealand’s. Under Ardern’s leadership, the Labour-led government has stayed a steady course directly down the centre, helming a ship that has remained afloat due to a kind of post-political disaster populism. From the mosque attacks, to the Whakaari/White Island eruption, to the pandemic, Ardern’s government has presided over successive crises, all of which have been deftly navigated in part through the prime minister’s personal popularity combined with a political strategy outwardly branded as ‘kindness’ and ‘consensus building’. Yet this configuration is hardly reducible to the contingencies of crisis, and at its centre is a more fundamental political reality. At every significant juncture during its term, from the passing of the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019, where it needlessly pursued bipartisan consensus, to the contested site at Ihumātao, where its inaction necessitated the intercession of Māori king Tūheitia, Ardern’s government has consistently eschewed any direct or meaningful political stance. At best, it has consigned itself to the role of a brutally competent manager of crises, whose tenure is dependent on the only certainty afforded by today’s calculus of power: what Lauren Berlant described as ‘crisis ordinariness’. 

In the October election, after having proven itself in the face of another crisis, and both it and the population under its care having emerged relatively unscathed, the Labour Party campaign slogan read ‘Let’s keep moving’. As one political commentator pithily noted, this slogan roughly translates as ‘Well, we’re still alive, aren’t we?’. Ardern’s brand, aptly so called, of politics is often juxtaposed to that which seems to have the rest of the Western world in a firm grip: an ascendant fascism. However, what it shares with these is a populism that turns on the reduction of politics to bare life—to the distribution of life chances and the calculated management thereof in a time of mass extinction. If it has anything to say about this situation, the RCI’s report begs the question of chance. Namely, it leaves us with this question: as aggregate forms of life and death are submitted to an ever-expanding and increasingly autonomous regime of codes and algorithms, what, and who, is left up to chance?

About the author

Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer and researcher based in Aotearoa/New Zealand. His main research interest is in social and critical theory, and his writing focuses on race, settler colonialism and Islamophobia.

More articles by Faisal Al-Asaad

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