"An ordinary white man". How should we best place the actions of Brenton Tarrant, the attacker on the Christchurch mosques, in their wider context? For while the actions of Tarrant may be exceptional in their violence, the rhetoric underpinning them is most definitely not. It draws upon much broader and long-germinating narratives of a white-European West faced with an existential, if not directly biological, threat to its very survival.
It is crucial to understand the pervasiveness of such narratives in order to fully appreciate the portent of Tarrant’s words and deeds. As upsetting as it may seem, we need to take seriously his claims to be the ‘soldier’ and ‘vanguard’ of a wider movement for reclaiming ‘European civilization’ (also in its farthest, Antipodean reaches).
In the hours and days following the attacks, commentators pointed (quite rightly) to the role of social media in helping to create figures like Tarrant by providing networked platforms for the spreading of hateful ideologies: how, otherwise, would a gym employee from an Australian provincial town have woven together the “shreds of history, para-ideological ruminations and paranoid declarations” that make up the 74 pages of his ‘manifesto’, as medievalist (one of the most eminent scholars of the Crusades) Franco Cardini defined the rantings of Tarrant.
As important as the role of social media platforms certainly has been in diffusing many of the ideas that made their way into the afore-mentioned manifesto and in putting people like Tarrant in contact with like-minded others, it is just as important to consider how many of these ideas – in ‘softer’, more respectable form – have become by now normalized across a whole range of political contexts, from the North American to the European one. Tarrant, alongside several of the ‘compatriots’ he claimed inspired his actions, such as Andreas Breivik in Norway or Luca Traini in Italy, saw himself as part of the ‘vanguard’ of a ‘supremacist international’ to use Ezio Mauro’s term. There is an increasingly dangerous proximity, however, between this violent vanguard and mainstream political forces.
Europe’s ‘final battle’
Tarrant’s manifesto, like that of Breivik before him, invokes the need to protect a European civilization that is under attack, indeed that is facing a ‘final battle’ for its very survival. At the core of this battle lies demography, the threat of ‘The Great Replacement”: as Tarrant invokes it at the outset of his manifesto, ‘it’s the birthrates, it’s the birthrates, it’s the birthrates’. It is the demographic threat of ever-increasing and hyper-fertile migrant populations that, literally, threatens to submerge, to ‘replace’ native (read: white and Christian) European societies. In this vision, the threat of growing migrant populations is not simply a threat to the security of European states, or to their identities and territorial integrity: it is a threat to their very existence, to their biological security, to their very continued existence as homogeneous national ‘bodies’.
The role of demography has always been prominent in the geographical imaginaries of authoritarian states, evident in the natalist policies of regimes such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Franco’s Spain, but also in the ways in which motherhood was ideologically revered in the former Soviet Union.
In more recent ‘demographic geopolitics’, it is not just native natality that takes prominence but, equally, the threat posed by migrant bodies to the ‘biological’ strength and integrity of the nation. Over the past fifteen years, such ideas have become not just the prerogative of extremist fringes but have made their way into what can be considered ‘acceptable’ political commentary.
Two prominent figures, on either side of the Atlantic, are indicative of how this debate began to shift already in the early 2000s: Samuel Huntington, whose 2004 book Who Are We? America’s Great Debate focused precisely on the ‘deconstruction’ of American identity and the threat represented by hyper-fertile immigrant populations; and popular Italian writer-journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose books became favoured reading for a variety of right-nationalist leaders from Europe’s East to West.
Fallaci’s intimation of an ‘Islamic Reverse Crusade’ threatening to “submerge and subjugate” Europe was focused on the “Politics of the Womb, that is, the strategy of exporting human beings and reproducing in abundance” as “the most direct means for taking control of a territory, of dominating a country, of substituting a people or subjugating it”.
While Huntington’s claims were a bit more measured and couched in a veneer of empirical data and academic credibility, the language used in his book to depict the growing numbers of Hispanics in the US was also that of military conquest and occupation, with migrants accused of “establishing beachheads” in various territories, so much so that “for sections of the Southwest, it is not premature to speak of a cultural and social irredenta – sectors of the United States which have in effect become Mexicanized and therefore, under political dispute”.
The appeals of Huntington and Fallaci have continued to incubate within the American and Italian far- (and not-so-far) right, resurfacing with added vigour in the most recent electoral contests. I highlight the US and Italy as two important sites not only because Tarrant drew inspiration from both, but also because both have become important contemporary laboratories of dangerous ideologies.
Working in concert
With this I do not intend to point the finger simply at the alt-right in the US, or the various new-Fascist movements in Italy. I am referring to much more prominent commentators and cultural-political figures that have made the demographic threat to the white-European West their battle cry. It was a cry first issued over a decade ago but one that has continued to resonate and indeed been amplified, as political forces once on the fringe have entered what is now the new mainstream, in both countries.
In less than two weeks’ time (March 29-31), the World Congress of Families will take place in the Italian city of Verona, under the rubric ‘The Wind of Change: Europe and the Global Pro-Family Movement’. Two of the leading themes of the meeting shall be ‘growth and demographic decline’ and the ‘promotion of birth rates and families’. While the body responsible for the Congress is the US-based conservative group International Organization for the Family, the event is being co-sponsored by the Italian Ministry of the Family, the Veneto Region and the Province of Verona (all three currently under the Lega’s leadership), and Lega secretary and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini has been announced as one of the speakers.
Previous congresses have been hosted in Moldova (2018) and in Hungary (2017), the latter serving as a key occasion for Viktor Orban to present his own strong thoughts on how ‘the future of Europe was under attack’, besieged both by uncontrolled migration and demographic decline, a Europe, he warned, that “is losing out in the population competition between civilisations”. The Verona Congress will also feature Orban’s Minister for the Family, and governmental as well as religious representatives from other Central and Eastern European states and Russia.
The Congress has drawn extensive attention in Italy both for the direct involvement of government ministers, but also for the tone of its appeals in advertising the event, depicting an Italy – and Europe – faced with threats to its continued existence.
In videos promoting the initiative, the nuclear family is presented as the ultimate expression of ‘the miracle of human life in the universe’, closing with a call for ‘heroes’ able to ‘re-ignite hope in a world in crisis’. While the heroes invoked by the WCF appeal to men and women willing to ‘do their part’ for the continued reproduction of European societies, there is a perilous proximity in this discourse to the heroic visions of men like Tarrant who violently attempt to square the other part of the demographic equation: the elimination of the invading others that threaten imagined societal stability.
The two parts, nevertheless, work in concert. The presence of extremists like Tarrant acts as both a foil as well as a multiplier to less-extreme forces, allowing ‘softer’ versions of the same arguments to appear somehow more acceptable, while also providing them with magnified visibility through exceptional actions. In this way, figures like Tarrant can lay claim to being both ‘the vanguard’ and at the same time very ‘ordinary’, as today’s mainstream politicians are increasingly allowed to publicly espouse the very same ideas.
 Franco Cardini ‘Il pericolo di rendere banale la storia’. La Repubblica 16 March, p.4.
 Ezio Mauro’s 2018 book L’Uomo Bianco (‘The White Man’) takes as its starting point the story of Luca Traini, the former Lega activist who unleashed a shooting spree on African migrants in the southern Italian town of Macerata in 2018, and one of the ‘heroes’ inscribed on Tarrant’s weapons.
 Most prominently, La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio (2001; translated as ‘The Rage and The Pride’) and La Forza Della Ragione (2004; translated as ‘The Force of Reason’).
 The Lega Minister for the Family, Lorenzo Fontana, the main promoter of the Verona Congress, is also the co-author of a book with a title that disturbingly evokes Tarrant’s manifesto: “The Empty Cradle of Civilization: At the origins of the current crisis”.