Peter Williams: Is terrorism a real threat in New Zealand?

Opinion 16/06/2021

I want to talk about terrorism and security, and whether or not we take threats seriously and whether or not there is actually much of a threat in this country. 

On Tuesday in Christchurch, at what can only be described as a talkfest on terrorism, the head of the SIS told us that there were two other potential mass shootings that were stopped because of police intervention in the weeks immediately before and after the March 15th attack on the mosques in 2019. Of course, there were no details given and no indication of exactly just what was planned, so we have to take Rebecca Kitteridge’s word for it that there were two other such events that were stopped. 

She called them “white identity extremism” attacks and we are being told there are small pockets of white extremism in various places around New Zealand, I wonder how much attention you really pay to such matters? Do you think about terrorism and security in your daily life, especially if you live in Christchurch?

The conference in Christchurch was only convened because the Royal Commission into the shootings said we should hold it. Inevitably there was controversy about who said what, and who was invited to talk. It seems strange that no members of the Muslim community or the Al Noor mosque were part of the panels. 

And then Juliet Moses from the Jewish Council made some comments about Hezbollah and Hamas which were probably ill-advised and that led to a walkout by some Muslims - although what she was trying to say that terrorism is terrorism, no matter what country it happens in. But from what I read, it wasn’t particularly helpful when the conference was about counter-terrorism in this country. 

But the big issue remains. Can New Zealand still be regarded as having a medium level of threat? Because in the wake of what happened over two years ago, that’s the security threat level still in the country. How much do you even consider a terror attack in your day to day life, and do you even think about measures to combat it?

At the conference, Andrew Little - as the Minister in charge of the SIS, said that police cannot be everywhere and that the public had a role to play. “If you see behaviours that are concerning that look like they are tending towards expressions of violence,” he said, “then you should take the step of reporting that.” And before that Rebecca Kitteridge had emphasised the same point. “Everybody has a role to play and we all need to understand what we can do both individually and together to oppose violent extremism in all its forms and to keep our communities safe.” 

Gosh, they’re very nice words aren’t they and they’re the sort of things you would expect from people in those positions. But then this morning, a report on crime in this country from the Ministry of Justice no less, says only about a quarter of crime in this country is reported and among the reasons for the underreporting of crime is that “police couldn’t have done anything anyway.” Isn’t that a sad reflection on this country?

So a couple of angles to talk about in the wake of that conference yesterday. If the head of the SIS and the Minister in charge say you have to play your part in reporting suspicious behaviour and keeping our communities safe, then how can you have confidence anything will actually be done about it? 

I come back to the massive failure by police in the case of Brenton Tarrant anyway. If his background had been thoroughly checked out before he was issued his firearms license, there’s every chance he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did on March 15. And if security agencies had paid attention to what was some strange behaviour at that gun club in South Otago then he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did. 

So are the words we heard in Christchurch yesterday from the important people really just that - words?