There is a terrifying scene in David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. Two children, from the comfort of their room, witness the titular killer, the Zodiac, stop a taxi right outside their home and kill the driver in cold blood. Later when the police arrive and the children are asked to describe the killer, one of them says the killer looked “normal”.
That’s the sense one gets while watching the horrifying video of the Christchurch shootings, where a gunman opens fire at mosques, killing at least 50 people.
The video, which was streamed live on social media, opens with the killer entering a van. The camera is placed on his helmet, it seems, so the entire video is shot in first person. Once inside the van, the killer says, “Subscribe to Pewdiepie” — referring to the famous YouTuber known for his racist content — and turns on the music as he drives off.
In the beginning, the music that plays in his car is the marching tune used by the Serbian paramilitary in the Bosnian War in 1991-92. The music then changes to the British Grenardiers. Again, the music is carefully chosen. The former tune is now symbolic of the Bosnian genocide, and the latter, an English military tune dating back to the 18th Century, is known for its overt association with British colonialism.
A little over three minutes into the video, we see the shooter stop the van and turn the camera towards himself. For the first time, we see his face: crew cut, blonde, a long face, rather composed, dressed in black. In short, it’s a face you can pass by while walking down a super market, and you won’t even notice that the bearer of the face had just opened fire in a mosque, killing people.
Ideally, we are prone to visualise a killer in a certain way. We are prone to assuming that hatred would be writ large over that face. But this face has nothing of that sort. It betrays no emotion, except maybe playfulness. In fact, in the entire video has a certain air of nonchalance. Had there been a child, much like that scene in Zodiac, to have witnessed the carnage this face would unleash in a matter of a few minutes, that child would have described the suspect as “normal” to the police.
There is a reason why I used the word “terrifying” to describe that scene from Zodiac. It begs a question — can the everyday familiarity of the normal be terrifying?
When we take a closer look at the video, with the air of nonchalance tattooed all over it, the first thing we realise, or at least the first thing our subconscious tells us, is that what we are looking at is not real. It cannot be real. The framing, the camera angle, little elements of its composition — like when the shooter gets out of the car and marches towards the mosque with only his rifle visible, when he opens fire at the worshippers, the way the innocent victims at the mosque run, some towards him, and some away — are all framed as though what we are watching is not real life but a make-believe virtual reality video game, a la Call of Duty or Fortnite.
But then, we also know that the framing of the video and what is unfolding in front of our screen is real. The corpses on the ground, bodies heaped one on top of the other, are of real people. The way the shooter runs and the sound of his heavy breathing are real. The gun is real. The bullets, real.
In short, the normal is terrifying because evil doesn’t look like Count Dracula living in the dungeons; it looks like you and me. The normal is also terrifying because it is near impossible to fathom what lies hidden underneath a face.
Meme culture and right-wing violence
One of the things that immediately ran through my mind as I watched the video was its uncanny resemblance to the myriad WhatsApp videos of cow-related lynchings that have become the mainstay of the body politic in India.
Take, for example, the video that came from Rajasmand in Rajasthan early last year, when a man lured a poor Muslim labourer into the jungle and killed him with an axe. The video went viral soon after it was uploaded on social media.
Moreover, these videos of right-wing terror — there really is no other word for it — are amply similar to propaganda videos uploaded on social media by the Islamic State for recruitment. Their function is the same, though these might be on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
One of the sites frequented by the Christchurch shooter was 8chan, an image-board website known to be frequented by right-wing white supremacists. Now, in the aftermath of the terror attacks on the mosques, a casual visit to the site will reveal several voices in support of the shooter and his ghastly act. One such post, shared barely hours after the shooting, reads: “Brendon did not target innocents. He didn’t attack teenagers in a pop concert or families enjoying a night out in the promenade. He struck a highly-effective blow against part of the political machine that is still actively engaged in attacking his people and attempting to eradicate them.”
8chan — and its milder avatar 4chan — are two of the internet’s biggest cesspools that deal with what is known informally as “shitposting”. Shitposting is the huge plethora of low-quality memes that are churned out by trolls. These memes are known for being extremely poorly photoshopped images and graphics aimed at mostly degrading issues like feminism, liberalism, etc. Shitposting gave rise to the now ubiquitous image of Pepe the Frog on 4chan, which, in turn, became a catchall meme used by the extreme right-wing to poke fun at and degrade those who were opposed to US president Donald Trump.
The Indian variant of these sites are pages on Twitter and Facebook, such as Squint Neon and Frustrated Indian, which also use shitposting as a way to target women and minorities. In a way, what is also at the bottom of this cesspool of meme culture is a kind of toxic masculinity, fuelled in part by violent video games and channelled through various underground social media sites like 8chan.
While a lot of ink would be spilt writing about growing Islamophobia in the West, what needs to be brought to the forefront is also this toxic subculture. This subculture doesn’t just involve white supremacists but a rather large ideological cocktail spanning continents, both the East and the West. They might be opposed to each other, but at the same time, they derive inspiration from each other.
For instance, the various fringe Hindutva groups in India who look up to Trump as a hero. Why? Because of his supposedly tough stance on immigration and Islam. In a way, Trump and Modi have become iconic figureheads that stand for the worldview subscribed by this subculture, and these two — and their silences in the face of violence — have added that extra fuel for the subculture to thrive.
But now, we need to remember that while shitposting has, so far, been confined solely to the internet, what is increasingly being seen — both in India and the West — is that this is slowly mutating into something far more insidious. Much like the video of the Christchurch shooting, the real and the virtual have coalesced into each other. The trolls, who were earlier confined to the virtual world, have seemingly found a way out, and this did not begin with Christchurch. In India, at least, this phenomenon has been witnessed since at least 2014, where armed with the right-wing government at the Centre, the trolls found a new outlet and a new kind of brazenness.
A change in government in these countries is unlikely to stop this subculture from percolating further. Like a viper creeping against and inside an abandoned house, the subculture has now made inroads in the very interiors of our collective psyche. A very bleak and violent future is what these developments portend.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist and author, who writes on the intersection between pop culture and politics. His debut novel Darklands will be published by Penguin Random House in the summer of 2019.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.