New Zealand, a largely irreligious country, has never had an issue with religious extremism or any problem with Muslim groups. The National Front, New Zealand’s alt-right political party, is based in Christchurch, but it never makes a dent in the polls. The city itself has had an influx of migrants since the 2011 earthquake as a massive rebuild and construction effort got under way.
The story of Friday’s massacre has now become clearer. Despite multiple arrests on the day, it now appears that Tarrant acted solo, making it a typical lone wolf terrorist attack.
“Two other people were apprehended at a cordon during this operation, and a firearm was seized from them. Now one of those persons, a woman, has been released without charge. The man in that vehicle has been charged with firearms offences. At this stage we do not believe that they were involved in these attacks,” Police Commissioner Mike Bush told assembled media on Sunday. Another man was arrested whom Bush describes as “tangential” to the attacks, but police do not believe he was involved.
At 1.45pm, Tarrant, driving a white Subaru station wagon, pulled up outside the Al Noor Mosque with five semi-automatic weapons, four of which appear to have been modified, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. He starting opening fire in the mosque. Unlike a church, mosques have no pews; there is nowhere to hide. After killing about 40 people, he drove from Deans Avenue, which borders the western side of the CBD, to the Linwood Mosque, about seven kilometres away in the city’s east, and shot 10 more dead. It took him less than 10 minutes. He then got back in his car and headed back westwards along Brougham Street, a few blocks to the south of the CBD where a police car rammed and subsequently arrested him. It was 36 minutes from the beginning of the shooting. On Sunday there were 50 dead, and 50 injured.
Little remarked upon was the fact that, according to Tarrant’s manifesto published online just before the attack, he was trying to head to the town of Ashburton, 90 kilometres to the south of Christchurch. According to Tarrant, its mosque had committed the ultimate desecration by converting a former church.
Although Tarrant attacked Christchurch, he actually had lived the previous two years in Dunedin, and not just anywhere: perhaps deliberately and perhaps by creepy coincidence, the corner of Somerville and Every streets. Every Street was the site of the notorious Bain family massacre in 1994, for which David Bain was convicted of coming home from his paper run and murdering his entire family. That verdict was controversially overturned in the later 2000s.
The attack will undoubtedly have a huge effect on an already traumatised city.
Staff at Christchurch hospital, a short drive from the shootings at the main mosque, dealt with the casualties well, according to one surgeon spoken to by The Australian Financial Review, who also worked during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in which 185 people died.
“Christchurch is obviously experienced from a mass casualty point of view, by necessity, and the system put in place to deal with mass casualties seemed to work very well in the emergency department, where I think they did a pretty incredible job of triaging and managing nearly 50 patients within a couple of hours.”
The wounds themselves were complex to deal with, but in line with modified semi-automatic rifles.
“They were probably a lower velocity than military-grade but still significant, worse than handgun injuries,” the surgeon who wished to remain anonymous after staff were instructed on Sunday not to speak directly to media, told the Financial Review. “There’s relatively small entry and exit wounds but between the wounds there’s a lot of bullet debris and quite a wide tract of damage through the wound.”
The surgeon also reflected on the contrast between being in two mass casualty situations in the same city.
“I think during the earthquake it felt like the people who were directly affected were isolated from the rest of the country in a way. The rest of the country sent platitudes but I don’t think they were personally as emotionally invested in it as the whole of the country and probably the whole of Australasia seems to be after this event. Because this is a wound on the national identity.
“I guess the other thing in the earthquake was that everyone was dealing with their own trauma so I guess there wasn’t the groundswell of support for one community which has happened on this occasion.”
National identity will be one of the matters at stake when Brenton Tarrant next comes before the court – scheduled for April 5. The other matter is how Tarrant will be tried and under what laws.
Andrew Geddis, professor of law at Otago University who is considered a public law expert and has written on New Zealand’s terrorist laws, told the Financial Review that, although Australian, Tarrant will be tried as any other Kiwi criminal: but could get the biggest ever sentence imposed upon him.
“The criminal process will be the standard one that gets applied, there won’t be any special treatment because of the nature of his actions
“I draw a comparison to what Norway faced after Anders Breivik. Their response was that they were keen to let their criminal justice system be seen to give him a fair trial, in order to demonstrate the values he had attacked. I think the New Zealand system would be very interested to do the same.”
Geddes says the balancing act will be, given that Tarrant is likely to represent himself, enabling that to happen without “allowing him to turn it into a political circus”.
The question now, is what laws he will be prosecuted under.
“The next time he appears there will clearly be other charges against him at that point,” says Geddis. “There’s also the question as to whether New Zealand’s Terrorism Suppression Act will be used for the first time.”
According to Geddis, for a case like this to be tried as terrorism, the attorney-general and the solicitor-general make the call. The question will revolve around whether, in a legal sense, the crown wishes there to be a legal acknowledgement that the charges to terrorism and not simply murder, even though murder carries longer sentences .
“If charges aren’t brought it makes you wonder it will ever be used for anything,” says Geddis who points out that Kiwi terror laws haven’t been used since 2002.
Candidate for ‘life means life’ sentence
The question of how long Tarrant might spend in prison is also unclear. Life imprisonment means 27 years in New Zealand, with a non-parole tariff of 17 years. But the eventual sentence, assuming Tarrant is found guilty, could mean he stays in jail for the rest of his life.
“It is possible in New Zealand to get a ‘life means life’ sentence: life without parole for murder – but that has never been used in New Zealand since its introduction in 2010,” Geddis says.
“I suspect that the magnitude of this offending and the underlying reasons for it, make him a candidate, if convicted.”
If Tarrant were to be paroled years in the future, however, he would be deported immediately back to Australia.
“The way it works in New Zealand: we have a shifting standard. So if you’ve been here for only certain number of years you get deported. If you’ve been here for 10 years, you won’t be. That’s because once you’ve been here for a period of time, we regard you as our problem. But he’s only been here for two years.”
Even if Tarrant were able to be extradited to Australia earlier, Geddis says – noting that there is no agreement he is aware of that would make that possible – he shouldn’t be.
“Speaking personally, he did it here to our people. I don’t know why our government would want to send him offshore to do his time. I think he should be here being punished in this country: being punished for what he has done to us and I think that political reality will hang quite heavily.”