The recent tragic events in Auckland should jolt New Zealand out of its complacency about the risk extremism presents, which we appear to have drifted back into since March 15, 2019.
Over two and a half years have passed since the Christchurch mosque attacks. Progress on changing our ability to deal with events of this nature has been slow, and frankly we are no better prepared now to deal with extremist violence than we were then.
We are fortunate that our security agencies were diligent and skilled enough to identify a threatening individual and take the precautions they did. Had they not, the Auckland attack could have been far worse.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry took a long time to produce its report and its recommendations varied in usefulness.
In the meantime, over-the-counter sales of military style semi-automatic (MSSA) weapons were banned, and the legal right to possess such weapons was removed. A multimillion-dollar buy-back was undertaken which confiscated a vast number of weapons from law-abiding gun owners. But did this make us safer?
Criminal gangs still possess them, a New Zealand police officer has since been killed with one and the Auckland supermarket attacker didn't need one.
This is a clear reminder that when options are limited, an extremist attacker will use whatever means they can get their hands on. They will improvise if necessary, using explosives, a vehicle - or even a knife from a supermarket shelf.
Proposed bill falls short
Our Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) 2002 remains unchanged. The Government at a clearly pedestrian pace finally proposed the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Bill earlier this year, which addresses some critical weaknesses exposed in 2007.
But even then, the bill goes nowhere near conferring the powers necessary for security sector agencies to act against individuals they have strong grounds to suspect of extremist intent. The TSA retains the fundamental flaw of a terrorist not being a terrorist until after they have perpetrated their attack.
Powers to hold suspects for periods of time for investigations to continue, or to extend some control over certain individuals who are strongly suspected of violent intent, have not been contemplated in the legislative changes. If they were, they would compromise our civil liberties.
This is a discussion we need to have, about how to balance the safety and security of our society against the civil liberties of extremists, terrorists and criminals who seek to do us harm.
The recent attack places the spotlight on the criticism that our security agencies looking at Isis-inspired threats were "looking the wrong way" prior to 2019. Some commentary has been myopic after March 2019, suggesting that the only genuine threat is from right-wing extremists.
Too much commentary has been given to racism – make no mistake, racism, like all prejudices, is despicable and unwanted – but it is not, as some academics would have us believe, the only source of extremism in New Zealand and we need to disabuse ourselves of the myth that social cohesion will prevent these types of occurrences. Lone actors tend to avoid society and resist its norms.
The ideology underpinning a given type of extremism is largely irrelevant; it is the dedicated intent to commit violence against innocent people that is the key identifying concern. This could come from a range of political or ideological standpoints.
Surely there will be less criticism about "intelligence failure" this time. Our intelligence and security agencies have done their job. They had identified a clear threat to the community, they acted to the extent that the law would allow, and they had implemented a surveillance operation – with a tactical team following the individual they believed was intent on carrying out some attack.
Such surveillance is expensive and labour-intensive, requires highly specialised skills and is difficult to maintain over long periods of time. On the face of it, there is nothing more that could have been done within the limits of New Zealand law as it stands.
Regardless of what legal changes are ultimately made, it remains that there can be no absolute guarantee of security against lone-actor attackers, especially when their decision to attack is kept to themselves and their mode of attack is improvised. We simply cannot go to the extent of removing knives from supermarket shelves.
• Dr John Battersby is a teaching fellow at Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, and a specialist on terrorism and counter-terrorism. He is managing editor of National Security Journal and was recently named as a global influencer in 2021 by IFSEC International.