An Australian white supremacist carried out the deadliest mass shooting in New Zealand history this week when he murdered 49 people in two mosques in Christchurch. Australian media identified the attacker as personal trainer Brenton Tarrant, who broadcast his rampage live on social media, and police confirmed that he left behind a 74-page manifesto in which he wrote about his hatred of immigrants and non-white peoples, using the language of Neo-Nazism and white supremacy. He spoke of “white genocide,” a common theme among the far right, and one we have seen invoked repeatedly in the racist embrace of the Solutrean Hypothesis among white nationalists.
The manifesto contained one passage of note to us because it connects white nationalist ideology to the stew of pseudo-historical conspiracy theories that currently circulate on cable television networks such as the History Channel and the Travel Channel and their global broadcast partners.
Did the groups you support/are aligned with order or promote your attack?
Just to be clear, Tarrant did not refer to cable TV programs or conspiracy theories about the Knights Templar. He did, however, claim to have been radicalized by his consumption of right-wing media on the internet and joked that video games taught him extremism. His social media feed included links to media properties such as RT that spread history-based conspiracy theories similar to those used on cable television alongside anti-immigrant and alt-right propaganda.
According to the New York Times, the “Knights Templar” referred to above are an anti-immigrant group that borrowed the name and imagery of the original Templars to evoke the Crusades. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified the Knights Templar International as an anti-Muslim group organized by Britain First cofounder Jim Dowson, which has offered support to paramilitary activities in Eastern Europe, including a faction dedicated to restoring the Serbian monarchy. The Christchurch shooter, however, was referring to a different group—one that may not exist.
Tarrant identified Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik as a “knight justicar” of the Knights Templar, which Breivik claimed had been reestablished in London in 2002 as a shadowy league of secret agent assassins. Breivik claimed to be a knight of the reborn Knights Templar with the justicar rank—a title typically associated with medieval English and Scottish governments, not Knights Templar. He claimed his attack, in which he shot 69 members of a youth league in 2012, was a Templar action in defense of Christianity and European civilization. So far as I know, there is no evidence that this group of Templar terrorists exists outside of Breivik’s mind, and police concluded it was a fantasy resulting from Breivik’s mental illness.
The KTI, as the Knights Templar International organization is known, is a real-life rightwing group claiming to save European civilization. It offers an array of propagandistic hate articles frequently shared among far-right extremists in which news stories are slanted to cast immigrants and Muslims in the worst possible light. KTI mostly operates in Europe in support of far-right politicians, but it has also contributed pro-Trump propaganda, including working with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 presidential election. The organization also advocates against socialism and homosexuality.
KTI uses the symbols of the original Knights Templar in order to associate itself with what it sees as history’s strongest defenders of European cultural values against Islam.
So why would a hate group choose a medieval order of knights for its message? The answer is fairly obvious: The Knights Templar have media cachet because of their pop culture prevalence, particularly on cable television, but also in movies and video games. The Templar fetishism we see in the media has helped to make the Templars symbols of white nationalism for those on the far right. They were far from the only knights to go on the Crusades, nor were they the only group to be associated with a defense of Europe or Christendom. But they have something that other Europeans who defeated Muslim forces, like Charles Martel or the Habsburgs, do not: a huge multimedia apparatus that implicitly and sometimes explicitly links them to white nationalist goals and ideals.
We have seen time and again that cable television has broadcast pseudo-documentaries that associate the Knights Templar with conspiracies that appeal to white nationalist sentiments. We have seen programs that claimed the Knights Templar colonized North America before Columbus and were alleged to be the rightful owners of America. We have seen them claimed to be the protectors of the deepest secrets of Christianity, or even the owners of the only true Gospels, or the possessors of the Ark of the Covenant, whose divine favor they can bestow on governments that embrace their ideals. We have seen them used to support claims that America is the true receptacle of the purest Christianity—but only in its anti-Catholic, Protestant form. These are all claims that were broadcast on the History Channel in the past few years. Other cable channels have repeated and amplified these ideas.
Whether by design or by accident, cable TV’s Templar fetish helps the Knights Templar International and other extremist groups by providing a fake historical precedent for white nationalist ideas and by creating interest in false claims about the Knights Templar that lead viewers to internet research that easily descends into far-right extremism, as several studies over the past few years have demonstrated.
This of course does not mean that cable TV needs to stop discussing the Knights Templar. They are a part of history, albeit a much smaller one than TV pretends. But it does mean that since they know that discussions of the Solutrean hypothesis, Templar conspiracy theories, white colonization of pre-Columbian America, and other such topics are embraced by the violent fringes of the far right, it is incumbent upon them to consider the potential impact of their false claims and restrict their broadcasts to what is true rather than false claims that give aid and comfort to extremists.
And make no mistake: such claims have always been understood to be about white nationalism. The medieval noble Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, may not have been a Templar, but those who believe he colonized America before Columbus claim him as one. His supporter Thomas Sinclair understood the stakes and claimed in 1893 that Sinclair was a key tool in asserting white Protestant supremacy over non-white immigrants, what he called “gigantic Armageddon contest of blood and belief” in which having a heroic symbol of a pure “white” discoverer of America would help suppress ethnic minorities and their efforts to outbreed whites.
Yes, this is the same “white genocide” claim that Brenton Tarrant made more than 125 years later. The notes may change, but the music does not.
The media need to step up and stop pretending that this obvious undercurrent doesn’t exist and doesn’t have an impact on extremists who see their twisted beliefs reflected in cable’s warped priorities. We have had enough of shows that distort the past by foregrounding white history in times and places where white people weren’t in charge or even present.
“Victors write the history and the writers of history control the cultural climate of the present time.”
Brenton Tarrant wrote those words just before killing 49 people in the name of “the ancestors” as well as the future of the “White Race.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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