Serious concerns have arisen over how New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has handled the recent Christchurch mosques massacre. And they don’t just involve her calls for stricter gun control and decision to ban all semi-automatic rifles.
In the wake of the attacks, the prime minister promised to keep the murderer “nameless,” and the internet promptly obliged by flushing the perpetrator’s identity down the memory hole. New Zealanders’ access to online material about him was blocked. In what has become standing operating procedure after mass attacks, social media accounts connected to the perpetrator disappeared. Internet service providers in New Zealand blocked access to sites like 4chan, 8chan, LiveLeak, and the file-sharing site Mega if the sites did not take down material related to the shooting.
Ardern then announced that the government would consider further policing social media, saying, “We will look at the role that social media played and what steps we can take, including on the international stage and in unison with our partners.”
Her actions raise the question: can we prevent evil by simply deleting its mention online? Imagine if the same decision had been made in the wake of other horrific historic crimes. Should we delete all footage of 9/11 from YouTube? How about never uttering the name Osama bin Laden or the acronym ISIS? What about banning all mentions of Adolf Hitler, burning all copies of Mein Kampf, and deleting all references to the Holocaust from our history books, lest we inspire neo-Nazis? Would these actions honor the memory of the dead, or simply erase their suffering? Such logic would replace “never forget” with “never remember.”
Besides the total lack of evidence that deleting references to terrorists will reduce their activities, there also exists a concern that it will encourage the conspiracy-addled among us to say that these events never happened. Within 24 hours of the New Zealand attacks, there were already intrepid internet sleuths making such claims. That was to be expected, because nature abhors a vacuum and our society is already prone to alt-reality conspiracy theories when life offers difficult truths. Even with living eyewitnesses and a plethora of photos and videos, a majority of Americans still believe the government is concealing information about about the 9/11 attacks. Almost half of us believe the same about the JFK assassination and almost a quarter of us think the moon landing was faked. Can you imagine how much worse this problem would be if the government actively impeded our access to information?
Today is the festival of Purim, detailed in the biblical book of Esther, when Jews celebrate their salvation from Haman’s plot to “destroy, kill, and annihilate” them all, “young and old, infants and women, in a single day.” After they are saved, the Jews are commanded to “remember what Amalek did…you shalt blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, you shall not forget.”
At first, this seems like a paradox. How can you both “remember” and “blot out the memory”? But on closer examination, this command is very relevant today: the only way to “blot out” horrific events is to prevent them from happening again, and to do that, you have to “remember.”
Our natural reaction to evil is to look the other way, to deny its existence, often until it is too late. While some have compared New Zealand’s actions to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, they more closely resemble the nightmarish vistas of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where displeasure and pain are banished. Echoing the modern instinct to erase all evidence of evil’s existence, one of the main characters in the novel declares, “Whether ’tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them…. But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy.”
We need so-called “negative” emotions to rouse ourselves from lethargy. I know this from personal experience. At the beginning of August 2014, I discovered a horrifying bit of news buried within a seven-minute CNN video report: an American businessman alleged that ISIS was “systematically beheading children” in a “Christian genocide.” It was incredibly dangerous for Western media to send reporters into ISIS-occupied territory then, but citizens working underground nonetheless were surreptitiously recording videos and tweeting out details of life inside the regime. Thanks to the unfettered access social media provided, I was able to peer into marketplaces in Raqqa and find video evidence of everything from child marriages to crucifixions to beheadings.
The news story I wrote about all this received over seven million viewers, eventually crashing the servers of the small news website I worked for. People the world over were incensed and rightly so. It was impossible to deny what those real-time uploaded images showed: a seemingly modern marketplace, teeming with with people, only for the camera to pan out over the spectacle for which the crowd had gathered, a brutal display of torture and death. The accessibility of the evidence, along with the stunning contrast between the modern technology and the barbaric practices depicted, stirred visceral disgust and viral outrage. This was only possible because at the time, Twitter was an open platform where any information—no matter how vile—could be accessed and shared.
But that was in 2014. Since then, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, and many other websites have begun to police their platforms and remove objectionable content. Some have since claimed that ISIS used its beheading videos to recruit new members.
Yet without those horrific images, ISIS’s brutal executions would have been all too easy to ignore, because even in our nightmares we would not conjure up such horror. The full range of human feelings after witnessing such atrocities—including disgust, outrage, and empathy for the victims—enabled us to act.
An open society is not afraid of the evidence of terror. Rather than running away from reality, democratic societies should confront evil directly, allowing evidence of it to be freely available, daily confronting and confounding those who would deny that such things ever happen. We must remember history, lest we be doomed to repeat it.
We cannot delete serious problems from the world by deleting content from the Internet and burying our heads in the sand. It’s a technique that doesn’t work too well for ostriches either.
Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.