At least 49 people were killed on Friday in an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a man whose name — by his own admission — is irrelevant. It is irrelevant, according to a 74-page manifesto he allegedly wrote, because fame and recognition did not motivate him. He was driven and sought to have his attack remembered by its role in a larger cause. That cause is white supremacy.
White supremacy comes in various forms, and few result in mass murder. Its most accepted manifestations thrive due to official legitimization, not 8chan-prowling killers. It can be observed in unexpected places. It finds subtle purchase in national magazine cover stories that argue for more restricted immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, by reasoning that “too much” immigration is “destabilizing” and “politically stressful” for its host countries in Europe and North America. “Politically stressful,” in this case, means that it drives native-born white citizens to embrace demagogues and fascists. That this is as an impulse considered worth bowing to by so many suggests that immigrants are not actually the problem.
White supremacy also comes shrouded in the garb of government sanction. The bodies were still warm in Christchurch on Friday when Senator Fraser Anning of Queensland, in Australia, issued a statement claiming that “the real cause of bloodshed [at the two mosques] … is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” “[Just] because the followers of this savage belief [Islam] were not the killers in this instance does not make them blameless,” Anning said, referring to the dozens of men, women, and children who were shot dead while praying.
And it is reflected in global laws that have all but transformed Muslims into a permanent suspect class. Under legislation ranging from the United States’s PATRIOT Act to New Zealand’s own Countering Foreign Fighters Bill, there are few civil liberties that Muslims living through the War on Terror possess that Western governments are bound to respect.
But the endorsement of these respectable entities and the people who consider their conclusions reasonable obscures a key reality of white supremacy: There exists no degree of policing, no border security measure strong enough, no military action or immigration restriction tough enough to quell the anxiety of people who see themselves as white when they are convinced that their social precarity is caused by people whom they consider not-white. There is no magic number or silver-bullet policy that can allay their fears. Friday was a predictable outcome of this reality. The endgame of white supremacy will always be deaths of those who aren’t white, because there is no such thing as an acceptable nonwhite presence under white supremacy.
If reports are accurate, Friday’s shooter was deeply preoccupied with the idea that white people were being “replaced” — a preoccupation he shared with the marchers that took Charlottesville, Virginia, by storm in 2017. His alleged manifesto is steeped in the white nationalist fantasy of nonwhite immigrant hordes outbreeding and making white people strangers in “their own countries” — countries established, in many cases, over the dead bodies of their darker-skinned occupants and by the sanction of a brutal settler-colonial kleptocracy. He cites statistic after statistic intended to illustrate how out of control immigration has become in these countries. None indicate anything close to a foreign-born takeover. But they are edifying nonetheless.
Indeed, their deployment suggests that the numbers don’t actually matter. The Muslim population in New Zealand is negligible — less than 50,000 in a country of 4.794 million. Its foreign-born Muslim population is even smaller, at roughly 75 percent of the total Muslim population. Even if those figures doubled, tripled, quadrupled, or quintupled, the killer’s mathematical rationale would not hold up. They were an existential threat to him regardless of how many of them there were — leaving observers to confront what this is really about, the same lie that has fueled white supremacist thought for centuries. It is the lie that presumes the genetic purity and innate superiority of people who centuries ago decided they were white and the rest of us were less than white. Policing the sovereignty of this whiteness — including by erecting national borders and trimming and cultivating population shares — has preoccupied them since its creation.
But it has never been enough. No Muslim man, woman, or child in New Zealand could have shrunken themselves to a size small enough to evade white supremacy’s murderous reach. The only answer was to shrink themselves into nonexistence. Only then would they no longer constitute a problem in need of a solution.
White supremacy is complex, of course. There is a counterargument to be made that there is not only an acceptable nonwhite presence under its auspices, but that white supremacy requires it. There is truth to this notion. All supremacy needs a foil. If there was nobody over whom to lord one’s superiority, how could that superiority be demonstrated? But this elides that white supremacy is also an elastic mythos. It is sustained by lives and deaths alike, and the utility of a nonwhite undercaste is defined by white supremacy’s judicious deployment of the latter. White supremacy would not be total if it could not kill with impunity those who make it possible. It is not satisfied merely claiming mastery — it must prove it. Even enslaved people in the antebellum South, who were among their country’s most valuable resources, possessed a utility predicated on the slaver’s ability to work them into an early grave.
Friday’s killer considered his attack a shot across the bow in a larger global offensive. It was a warning, he wrote, to those who sought to replace his people the world over. That his strategy was based on a fictive racial purity was immaterial to him — as was the fact that he was, as an Australian, an immigrant himself. That his presumed replacements tend to be marginalized wherever they land — culturally, economically, physically — and by definition, upon taking up residency, become the countrymen and countrywomen of the very people they are supposedly replacing did not figure into his analysis. His ideology was not to live and let live, as he claimed when he wrote that he had no issue with Muslims as long as they stayed in “their” countries. His ideology was a white supremacy under which people considered to be not-white must always be a problem.
The direness of that problem may fluctuate with the whims of the populace, marked by flare-ups and still waters in between. But a problem it remains, and one whose only solution is death. To analyze the killer’s motivations by validating his concerns about this problem, if not his methods of solving it, is to concede that the trouble with nonwhite immigrants is more than a matter of scale. It is a matter of presence. Even if one can survey the population of a country like New Zealand, or the United States, and conclude that its curated diversity speaks to an endearing commitment to plurality and egalitarianism, one becomes exposed if one believes that there is a point at which the nonwhite share could become too much. People who are capable of existing in too-large numbers because of their skin color are a problem because of their skin color. They would be acceptable if they were white, and that they are not makes their presence — their very lives — impossible for white supremacy to accept.