COMMENT: Until last Friday our security agencies were probably more worried about an Islamist New Zealander wishing to come home than a terrorist of Islamic Kiwis who was already here. It appears the accused killer had been here for several years, presumably posting his views online as well as amassing a cache of weapons and practising his shooting at a gun club not far from Dunedin.
Now the question has to be asked, should the agencies have been watching him? With hindsight the answer is easy but hindsight is an unfair judge and a poor teacher. Hindsight tells you how you might have averted the last disaster, not how to prevent the next one.
Ever since the massacre in the Christchurch mosques, commentators wise after the event have been calling it "an intelligence failure", which of course it was. But not very long ago some of the same commentators were accusing the intelligence agencies of spying improperly on residents of interest, collecting metadata of their online communications and maintaining surveillance on political activists who might pose a threat to public order.
Now it seems the agencies were not watching one extreme of the political spectrum closely enough, and not for want of warning. Members of the Islamic community are telling us they have been worried about threats from anti-immigrant quarters from some time. Iranian-born Green MP Golriz Ghahraman told says the racism she hears has been rising in recent years. It is a surprise to hear that, even after the events of last Friday which, as the Prime Minister has said, were "not us".
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Only one person has been charged in connection with the mosque attacks so far and he hails from Australia where, as reactions this week have shown, racism is more audible than it is here. So it is quite likely our police and intelligence agencies did not take immigrants' warnings seriously enough and might not have been monitoring Islamophobic posts and discussions online.
Their performance will be examined in an inquiry the Prime Minister has promised to set up, which the agencies will welcome. Much can be learned from a failure so long as the lessons can be applied widely. The agencies do not need to be told to watch the far right more closely, they need to apply that lesson to all emotive issues that can raise antagonism to a level that threatens the lives, health or safety of others.
The threat will seldom be explicit. An inquiry into the mosque shootings may find nothing in the accused's previous posts and communications that amounted to more than anger and hatred. Should those be grounds for closer surveillance? Or should the agencies act only if they hear a deadly intention and have reason to take it seriously?
Defenders of civil liberties will need to watch the inquiry closely. It is trite to say New Zealand changed last Friday but our complacency has gone. Mass murder can happen here. It has happened and we need all our security agencies to learn what they could have done to prevent it and what they need to do to make it less likely something like this can happen again.