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New Zealand’s government is doing what US law enforcement can’t — or won’t

The accused Christchurch mosque shooter is facing terrorism charges. In the United States, attackers rarely face such punishment.

The accused Christchurch mosque shooter is facing terrorism charges. In the United States, attackers rarely face such punishment.
The accused Christchurch mosque shooter is facing terrorism charges. In the United States, attackers rarely face such punishment. (Photo credit: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The white supremacist who allegedly attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March has been charged with engaging in a terrorist act by police — the first time in the country’s history that such a charge has been used.

The move shines a glaring light on the response to such events in the United States, where attackers rarely — if ever — face domestic terrorism charges.

The alleged attacker in the Christchurch shootings, who is from Australia, is already facing 51 counts of murder and 40 counts of attempted murder for his trial, which is set to begin in June. Police reportedly consulted with state prosecutors and legal experts before laying out the additional charge.

If found guilty, the alleged shooter will face life imprisonment without parole.

By contrast, in the United States, the term “terrorist” remains almost exclusively reserved for those connected with a foreign ideology and has not been used to prosecute attackers who’ve committed similarly gruesome crimes.

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As ThinkProgress previously outlined, none of the country’s most lethal domestic terrorists — like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, white supremacist mass shooter Dylann Roof, or Charlottesville attacker James Alex Fields — have actually faced domestic terrorism charges. This is despite the fact that, in many cases, the strength of the evidence against domestic terrorists is stronger than the evidence against overseas extremists.

“If you look at what [Pulse nightclub shooter] Omar Mateen did, the fact that he said ‘I swear allegiance to ISIS’ was good enough for everyone. Everyone agreed he was inspired by ISIS,” former FBI Special Agent Dr. Erroll Southers previously told ThinkProgress. “There should be no question about other instances where people have espoused beliefs in written documents […] about what their ideological background is. Why, then, would Dylann Roof, with a significant digital and physical presence, be charged or designated any differently than Mateen?”

More broadly, the response by the New Zealand government to the March attack — which was livestreamed on Facebook and accompanied by a 74-page manifesto full of white supremacist diatribes — stands in marked contrast to the United States, where responses to mass shootings often start and end with thoughts and prayers.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced legislation to ban assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons like the ones used during the shootings. Less than a month later, New Zealand’s Parliament voted to approve the bill 119-1.

In an effort to raise awareness about the dangers of online extremism and build a global response to counter it, Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron also announced in May the Christchurch Call initiative, a non-binding agreement which pledges to develop grassroots strategies against extremism and radicalization, ensure online service providers consistently and transparently enforce their community standards, and enforce laws prohibiting the dissemination of violent extremist content.

New Zealand has already prosecuted several individuals for spreading video of the Christchurch attacks.

The Christchurch Call was signed by 17 countries, including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The White House, however, declined to join, citing free speech concerns — even though the initiative had no regulatory measures and served more as a global acknowledgement of the problem rather than a series of obligations.

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Other countries have also taken steps to crack down on domestic and far-extremism, further isolating the relatively muted response from places like the United States. In May, for instance, a British court sentenced a neo-Nazi who plotted to kill a member of Parliament to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 20 years for preparing an act of terrorism.

According to Jenny Hopkins, the Crown Prosecution Service’s head of counter terror, the man “was prepared to act on his white supremacist world view … a plan reminiscent of the abhorrent murder of Jo Cox MP.”