Preventing crime and terrorism is an imprecise science. Perhaps it could be better described as an art because there isn’t a direct correlation between the preventative measures and the outcomes. A society can do a really good job at preparing for attacks of the sort we saw in Christchurch and ultimately be unsuccessful. As the IRA put it years ago, “We only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always.”
Keeping that important consideration in mind, let’s look at some of the factors that might have led law enforcement in New Zealand or Australia to have taken preventative action against white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, the alleged offender. In isolation, most factors are not serious but considered together, they tend to indicate he was a possible threat.
-Firstly, he had a gun licence and owned several firearms.
-Secondly, he was a member of a rifle club. According to the Washington Post, “no other club in the area offered shooting and target practice with military-style assault rifles.”
-Thirdly, “a former military machine gunner who visited the gun club where the mosque terror suspect trained says he was deeply troubled by its culture and lodged a complaint with police.” The member of the public who made the complaint even overheard members of the rifle club discuss mass shootings. The police downplayed the threat and did not take further action.
-Fourthly, Tarrant had posted Balkan nationalist material on social media previously and, according the the ABC, “was deeply engaged in a global alt-right culture,” presumably, online. Police are now casting a wider net, apparently looking for radical content created by Tarrant that they may have missed.
-Fifthly, around 9 minutes before the attack, he emailed his hateful manifesto to media outlets and to the Prime Minister of New Zealand’s office. Although it was acted on two minutes after it was received by PM Jacinta Ardern’s office, it did not reach the police until after the attack had commenced suggesting there may be some room for optimisation of protocols in this regard.
-Sixthly, Tarrant was a loner.
-Lastly, Tarrant lived something of an unusual life. He did not need to work, had travelled fairly extensively in Europe and had also been to Turkey, Pakistan and North Korea. These facts by themselves mean little but the salient point is that he did not lead a 9-5, rat race-like existence meaning he had the time and the opportunity to be indoctrinated into a culture of hate, whether that be radical Islamic terrorism or white supremacy. From an investigator’s perspective, idle hands can indeed perform the devil’s work. Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, was wealthy and did not work, spending most of his time gambling. In our experience, beneficiaries of deceased estates often get themselves into all sorts of trouble, falling victim to scams and falling out with family members in disputes over assets.
As an investigator, I do not necessarily expect law enforcement and intelligence agencies to have been able to prevent an attack such as the Christchurch massacre. Based on the above factors, what I would expect as a minimum however is that Tarrant was on the radar. There is no suggestion that he was. There were probably other red flags that we are not aware of yet and these may become apparent during the criminal trial.
The enormous changes in law geared towards enabling government surveillance in countries like Australia and New Zealand and the comparatively significant resources police deploy in fighting terrorist attacks have not prevented this attack. Sadly, although terrorist attacks will continue to be thwarted, Western governments will not stop all attacks in the future. So, what can we do to minimise the risk?
Well, if we have relied on the government and they have not been successful, perhaps we should change our perspective. Perhaps we must look to the place where most problems are solved – the private sector.
Pete Breidahl, the member of the public who reported Tarrant’s rifle club to police, was ignored. This is consistent with our experience with the police, taking into account the fact that we have regularly worked on matters involving criminality over 36 years. If you read the news carefully, you will often come across cases where police inaction has led to significant problems down the track. While well-intentioned, the police are under-resourced, inexperienced, over-worked and unable to dedicate time to many, many matters worthy of investigation. There is one police officer responsible for the investigation of hate crime in NSW, a state of around 8 million people: The stories I have heard from colleagues in my industry about the lack of resources within the police are frightening. Many people are not aware of the limitations around police resources until they are endeavouring to solve a personal problem themselves. Often people trust the police will take reasonable action to solve a case which can lead to missed leads and stale evidence if no such action is taken.
It’s also concerning that the government takes what we would consider a cynical view of anyone endeavouring to provide investigative solutions in the private sector. Despite acknowledging the fact that ASIC is unable to manage its responsibilities in the investigation of misconduct by corporations, the recent Australian Financial Services Royal Commission report included statements such as “The investigation … of breaches of law should not be outsourced to private bodies.” As far as I can tell, the report doesn’t really explain why. Considering the difference in the quality of outcomes between investigations provided by the private and public sectors that we have seen over the decades, we would disagree strongly with the notion that the government should be left to investigate just about anything itself.
Due to adverse coverage by the government-operated ABC, in recent years insurance companies have significantly scaled back the number of investigations conducted by private investigators into insurance claims. There’s no suggestion that the level of insurance fraud has changed, simply that it’s suddenly wrong to use surveillance investigators to try to prove fraud. To my knowledge, there’s no suggestion that stopping investigations is an act of economic rationalisation, just that a handful of people have claimed to have had psychological conditions worsened after having been placed under surveillance. Never mind the fact that the government accesses your metadata without warrant, shares Australians’ data with other Five Eyes governments, facilitates backdoors into apps, monitors you through thousands of CCTV cameras while its allies forge secret relationships with the large tech monopolies, tap into fibre optic lines that carry internet traffic to scoop up all your data, imprison whistleblowers and generally do everything possible to incrementally bring about an Orwellian nightmare. No, none of that would do anything detrimental to the mental health of the citizenry…
So, we have a police force incapable of solving many crimes reported to it, intelligence and law enforcement agencies that do not manage to stop terrorist and mass-casualty attacks on civilians, a culture of continuing centralisation of investigative power in the hands of the government (a campaign supported by the state broadcaster, the ABC) and a general unwillingness on the part of the government to allow others to assist in uncovering the truth.
The culture must change. Police, law enforcement and government regulators must recognise that they are fallible and that they cannot shoulder the entire load themselves. If our governments are going to build enormous surveillance apparatuses, they must not rely on those capabilities alone but must also rely on reporting from the public. They must learn to trust, work with and assist those in the private sector who process information, recognise threats and/or make reports. Police received 18 reports about the Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz over 9 years.
It’s imperative that the Australian and New Zealand governments develop a culture of disclosure, not of secrecy in their operations. They must be willing to give more information to their citizens about threats posed by others in society, whether that means disclosing criminal histories in appropriate circumstances or giving better insight into what warning signs citizens should look out for when it comes to those who seek to harm others. “If you see something, say something” is no longer sufficient. Loners, like Tarrant, can’t be allowed to slip through the cracks.
Investigators and police must have a greater dialogue and must more readily share information. The government must not seek a monopoly over investigative and surveillance powers because access to information is invaluable for business, education, personal wellbeing, regulatory health and for the safety of our communities. Access to information is a two-way street. It means the government must share information and must take reports from the public seriously. As Bruce Ferguson, the former head of New Zealand’s foreign spy agency said, “Information is like gold. If you don’t have it, you don’t survive.” I would rephrase it by saying that information is like air – if you don’t have it, you don’t survive. Our governments are gradually denying us access to information by stealth and this is like cutting off our oxygen. Unfortunately, for 50 souls in Christchurch, they will never breathe again.