Under pressure, democracies have a nasty habit of acting like panicked crowds.
One of the oldest criticisms of democracy is that it’s prone to degenerating into little more than mob rule, driven by the latest panic, hatred, or revulsion to consume people’s attention. When it comes to stoking such strong emotions, it’s difficult to top the effect of the brutal mass murders committed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In the wake of that crime, the country’s government has succumbed to blind reaction by restricting speech, depriving innocent people of arms, and heightening domestic surveillance—intrusions into individual rights that are inherent whether or not governments and majorities formally respect them.
It’s a grim illustration of just how vulnerable the “liberal” element of liberal democracy can be—as our own country has itself demonstrated in the past.
“The greatest danger to democracy is a struggling population in search of easy answers,” commented Philip Freeman, now a professor of classics at Pepperdine University, during a 2016 Arizona State University forum on demagoguery. As demagogues go, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks less like a Mussolini-type leading a mob and more like a participant in the panic trotting just a bit faster than the others and eager to mouth as many “easy answers” as it takes to avoid getting trampled by the rest.
Among those easy answers is a quickly introduced ban on semiautomatic firearms, with a few exceptions for .22 rifles and shotguns in order to minimize resistance from rural dwellers who need such tools. How enforceable the ban will be is anybody’s guess, since the country doesn’t currently have widespread registration to track who has which guns. Ardern proposes a national registry for firearms that remain in private hands, presumably to ease the task of confiscating them during the next unthinking panic.
Ironically, mass murderer Brenton Tarrant wanted just such a reaction. In his nasty, hate-filled “manifesto” he explained that, to commit his crimes:
I chose firearms for the affect it would have on social discourse, the extra media coverage they would provide and the affect it could have on the politics of United states and thereby the political situation of the world… With enough pressure the left wing within the United states will seek to abolish the second amendment, and the right wing within the US will see this as an attack on their very freedom and liberty.
This attempted abolishment of rights by the left will result in a dramatic polarization of the people in the United States and eventually a fracturing of the US along cultural and racial lines.
The effect on New Zealand law he considered a foregone conclusion, describing gun owners there as “a beaten, miserable bunch of baby boomers, who have long since given up the fight.”
Do the people of New Zealand know that they’re playing into the hands of a murderous, racist thug? Are they aware that that they’re explicitly fulfilling the desires of a self-described “fascist” who admires the government of the People’s Republic of China, and wants to “incite violence, retaliation” with the partial goal of “destabilizing and polarizing Western society?”
Perhaps they don’t know because “Chief Censor” David Shanks banned possession of both the video record Tarrant made of his crimes, as well as the manifesto he produced explaining what he hoped to accomplish by slaughtering people. Shanks declared it “illegal to have a copy of the video or document, or to share these with others.”
Knowing possession of either the video or the manifesto by unauthorized individuals is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and NZ$50,000, while distribution can get you 14 years behind bars.