The mass murder of 49 Muslims at prayer in a New Zealand mosque is an atrocity that has led to a search for explanations. Some writers have attributed the killings to the “nationalism,” or “white nationalism,” of the killer.
Deliberately exploiting social media, he posted a lengthy manifesto revealing (or purporting to reveal) his opinions. We thus have some evidence—although its value is uncertain—about his motives. Here I want to explore the question whether, and if so in what sense, he was a “nationalist.”
This question is important because the murderer’s killing spree is being used to discredit nationalism and those who espouse it. But it is implausible to claim that the murders of these innocent Muslim victims was caused by nationalism. Rather, it appears to me that this killer was a kind of globalist, who in this respect and several others resembles the mass murderers of ISIS.
What Is a Nation?
Let me begin with the question of what a “nation” is. My treatment here is inevitably oversimplified and schematic. Those who seek a serious, in-depth analysis of this and related issues should read the brilliant recent book by the Israeli philosopher and political theorist Yoram Hazony, “The Virtue of Nationalism” (2018).
“Nations” can be seen to emerge organically from simpler types of kinship groups. To start with, there is the family. A group of families banding together form a clan. From a group of clans, a tribe emerges. From a collection of tribes arises a “nation,” or what can also be called a “people.”
The core of all these relationships is kinship or descent from a common ancestor (real or imagined). But membership at each level need not necessarily be closed to non-kin. Just as a family can adopt a stranger, so a clan, tribe, nation, or people can admit outsiders to their membership. But the core of the group is based on kinship, albeit often of an attenuated kind.
We call such nations “ethnic” nations. Probably such nations no longer exist, or scarcely exist, in a pure form. But the category can still be useful analytically, and a few existing nations—Iceland, for example—are approximations to the pure form.
“Nations” or peoples have to be distinguished from “nation states,” the political and governmental form that ethnic nationhood may take. In nineteenth-century Europe, the Poles, the Irish, and the Jews were all “nations” or “peoples,” but all lacked a nation state of their own. The Poles and Jews were largely subsumed by larger states, particularly the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires; the Irish were incorporated into the British empire and more specifically into the United Kingdom. Each of these peoples acquired a nation state of their own in the twentieth century.
Creedal, or Civic, Nations Are Another Kind
Many existing nation states are not constituted or even dominated by a single ethnic “nation” or people. The highly multi-ethnic and pluralist United States and India are paradigms of this kind of nation state. So, increasingly, are nation states like France, where those who are ancestrally “French” are a declining proportion of the population.
Nation states such as the United States are constituted more by a shared belief system, institutional loyalties, and laws than anything resembling or resulting from kinship ties. To be an American is, in essence, to hold and to act upon certain beliefs. Membership in an ethnic “nation” is not a test of, or a perquisite for, being an American.
Because the basic criterion for membership in the American nation state is not ancestry but belief, being “American” is somewhat like being the follower of a religion. What matters most is what you believe and do, not who your forebears were or what tribal membership you claim. So the United States can be characterized as a “creedal” (others would say “civic”) nation, rather than an ethnic one.
In the run-up to the Civil War, there was a serious dispute over whether the United States should become an ethnic or a creedal nation. Some, like Chief Justice Roger Taney and Sen. Stephen Douglas, took the position that only those descended from the peoples of Europe could be members of the American nation and participants in its political life.
Others, like Abraham Lincoln and his supporters in the Republican Party, insisted that membership in the American nation state should not be based on tribal or ethnic identity but, essentially, on acceptance of the American “creed.” In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln described America as “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Dedicated to a proposition. Lincoln’s view prevailed. We are a propositional nation, not an ethnic one.
Despite the infamies heaped upon him by mistaken critics, Donald Trump stands squarely in the broad tradition of American nationhood espoused by Lincoln and his Republican Party. Consider, for example, Trump’s call in his recent State of the Union Address for more legal immigration.
Trump appears to want a reform of our immigration system that would base legal admission on an applicant’s “merits,” presumably understood in economic terms, not tribal ones. There is no suggestion whatever that he wishes to restrict any legal immigration to Europeans, whites, or non-Muslims. To require that applicants bring human or other forms of capital with them as a condition of lawful immigration is obviously not to impose a racial, ethnic, or religious test.
The Last Category Is Empire
In addition to (ethnic or creedal) nations, there are also “empires.” Just as (ethnic) nations are aggregates of tribes, so empires have typically been aggregates of nations or peoples. Characteristically, however, one ethnic nation within an empire has tended to dominate the others politically and culturally. In the nineteenth-century British Empire, the English and Scottish tribes and peoples were dominant; the Irish, French Canadians and Indians not so.
“Empire” has probably been the most important form, historically, of large-scale political organization. Empires have included the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, and Chinese ones. The benefits of this political form are fairly obvious: empires repressed violence between the tribes and nations they governed; enacted uniform laws; established uniform weights and measures and a single currency; built roads, storehouses, and relay stations across vast territories; encouraged the use of a single language; and so promoted prosperity, commerce, and peace.
On the other hand, empires, even if long-lasting, have nearly always dissolved. (The Chinese empire is arguably the exception to this rule.) For one thing, the peoples or ethnic nations within them may long ardently for their own, independent form of government. This longing may be particularly acute when the dissatisfied people refuse to be treated as the inferiors of the dominant people, or resist the imposition of beliefs or customs repugnant to them. So the Jewish people rebelled, tragically and unsuccessfully, against the Roman Empire; and the Irish people, with greater success but only after many centuries, seceded from the British Empire.
The diversity of peoples in empires is a strength, but also a cause of friction and conflict. Ultimately, that diversity has often led to violence and war against the central authority and the governing group. Such violence in turn has led either to growing despotism by the authorities or to the empire’s dissolution. The long existence of the Chinese empire (under many different dynasties) may be due, in large part, to the belief of most of China’s population that they share the common (ethnic) identity of being Han.
Another cause of the dissolution of empires has been their vague and uncertain borders. Empires tend to extend themselves for indefinite distances, at least until the cost of military defense becomes too heavy. At some point in their expansion, they typically encounter peoples—like the Germans north of the Roman Empire, or the Mongols north of China—who forcibly resist their encroachment, demand tribute, raid their remote settlements, and even invade, conquer, and occupy their heartlands.
The Decline of the Nation-State
It is a commonplace to remark that the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century have witnessed, perhaps most conspicuously in Western Europe, the decline of the nation state. (Eastern Europe seems to be different.) Many reasons have been assigned as causes, and most European and American intellectuals applaud this trend.
Some explain it primarily in economic terms—e.g., the nation state is no longer right-sized for the demands of a global economy; or nation states cannot solve the collective action problems posed by global warming. Others would locate the decline of the nation state, particularly in Western Europe, to its (alleged) propensity to war. Whatever explanation is accepted, the trend itself seems very evident.
What would replace the nation state? The answer that most western intellectuals and, at least until recently, most western politicians, would give is, in effect, empire. To be sure, they would never use the disturbing word “empire.” But that is, in substance, their position.
Thus, the European Union is a—very ramshackle, incongruous, and unacknowledged—empire. But it is an empire nonetheless, despite the disguises in which it is camouflaged. (Indeed, it is arguable that the EU is not only an “empire,” but effectively a German empire, in which that state plays a dominant role.)
As we have seen, empires have historically produced many goods, including the suppression of violence between the peoples or ethnic nations that comprise their populations. But they have also produced such violence as their constituent peoples grow disaffected, turn on each other, or rebel against the controlling authorities.
If the decline of the nation state has created pressures to ascend to the level of empire, it will likely also lead to increasing ethnic conflict and perhaps to retribalization. A major function of the nation state has been to prevent ethnic and tribal war, first, by suppressing such violence through its police and courts, and second, by offering its population an object of loyalty, commitment, and identity comparable in intensity and depth (at least in wartime) to a tribe’s.
The passion and energy that the nation state has been able to command have been awesome: hundreds of thousands of young American soldiers in the Union Army sacrificed their lives on what Lincoln called “the altar of the Nation.” But as identification with the nation state wanes, we should expect a reversion to ethnic nationalism and to tribalism.
Was the New Zealand Shooter Motivated by Nationalism?
With this framework in mind, we can address whether the New Zealand murderer was motivated by “nationalism.” It seems clear that he was not. A subtler and more searching explanation for his violence must be found.
To begin with, there is no indication at all, either from his actions or his writing, that he was an Australian nationalist. How would Australian nationalism be advanced by murdering Muslims?
More plausible is the thought that he was an Anglo-Australian (ethnic) nationalist. Certainly, he highlighted his British ancestry. Perhaps the Anglo-Australians might be considered to be a “people” or a large “tribe” within contemporary, pluralistic Australia. In the same way, the Dutch or English in the Union of South Africa might be characterized as distinct (minority) peoples or tribes in that setting.
Carrying this thought even further, one might argue that the (ethnic) English in the current United Kingdom were a distinct people or tribe within that country. One might even attempt to claim the same of “WASPs” in the United States.
But, again, the New Zealand shooter did not identify himself as an Anglo-Australian nationalist. Rather, he identified himself with the figure of the convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal, Radovan Karadzic. But Karadzic could hardly be described as an Anglo-Australian nationalist: he was an ethnic Serb. The New Zealand shooter based his personal identification with Karadzic on the most important thing he thought they had in common: a murderous hatred of Muslims, everywhere on the planet.
Now, it is open to question whether Karadzic would have harbored murderous feelings towards Muslims in Christchurch New Zealand, which is pretty far away from Bosnia. But let that pass. The more salient point is that the group of people who hold murderous or genocidal views of Muslims do not, in any way, constitute a “people” or a “tribe.” The latter are relationships rooted in kinship, not in attitudes or beliefs. So if this shooter centered his identity on hatred of Muslims, it is hard to see how that could be said to have made him a “nationalist.”
The obvious retort to this is that he describes himself as acting on behalf of the “white people” or the “white race.” But would that make him a nationalist?
True, in some situations it might be reasonable to describe particular groups of “white” people as a distinct “nation,” “people,” or even, in a loose sense, “tribe.” Anglo-Australians might conceivably answer to that description; so might white South Africans. But in what sense could the “white race” throughout the entire world be described as a single ethnic nation?
Granted, the Poles, the Jews, or the Irish can plausibly be considered to be ethnic nations. But can all these groups be considered to be the same ethnic nation? How many of the world’s 800-900 million persons of straight European descent would see themselves in that light? How many of them would wish to form a distinct nation state?
The New Zealand Murderer as a Globalist
We should be looking for some explanation for the New Zealander’s violence other than nationalism. I submit that his perspective was a globalist, not a nationalist, one. The resemblances between this shooter’s violence and that practiced by the Islamic State (ISIS) are striking. They may give us the right clues to understanding his real motivation.
Like ISIS, the New Zealand murderer selected soft targets: the victims of his atrocity were innocent Muslim men and women at prayer. Like ISIS, he exploited to the full the resources of modern social media in order to call attention to himself and his actions. Like ISIS, he aestheticized violence: in his hands, the mass murder of the innocent, live-streamed as it was happening, was designed to be a work of art.
Most importantly here, his violence, like ISIS’s, was addressed to a global audience in the service of a global cause: in their case, the renewal of a caliphate subsuming all Muslims spread across the planet, the umma. In his case, the “white race” throughout the world, faced (in his view) with demographic catastrophe and extinction. He was in effect calling on his intended audience to grasp the seriousness of its condition and to meet its global danger.
Whatever name we give to this kind of motivation, “nationalism” is not adequate. It is absurd to maintain that the white race throughout the entire planet forms a single, unitary “people” or “nation” in exactly the sense that particular white ethnicities do. Such a position is intelligible only from the globalist perspective that this mass shooter held, in which the differences between (say) Anglo-Australians and ethnic Serb Bosnians are entirely blotted out.
What I suspect the New Zealand killer was looking for was a kind of transnational or globalized community that defined itself in terms of “whiteness” and that adopted a violent and even genocidal attitude to the Muslim world as a whole. Yet, at the same time, that community, despite its global reach and teeming inner diversity, was to offer persons like himself the solace, intimacy, protection, and recognition characteristic of a tribe.
This is, perhaps, an ersatz and Christ-less form of Christendom. It may be a weird hybrid of globalism and tribalism. It is no recognizable form of nationalism.