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Two other poems are fully quoted in the manifesto. One is a doctored version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Beginnings” that replaces the original’s refrain “When the English began to hate” with “When the Saxon began to hate.” The rest of the poem, originally written about the anti-German sentiment that took root in the U.K. during World War I, is untouched. In the context of the manifesto, the verses might as well be about online radicalization: “It was not preached to the crowd. / It was not taught by the state. / No man spoke it aloud / When the Saxon began to hate.”
The manifesto closes with “Invictus,” by the 19th-century English writer William Ernest Henley. With its avowal that “my head is bloody, but unbowed,” it’s among the most commonly cited poems ever, with famous invocations including by Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned for resisting South African apartheid and Timothy McVeigh before his execution for killing 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. Henley wrote the poem in 1875 while recovering from surgery on his leg. It is a straightforward statement of resilience in the face of death, or, as Henley puts it, “the Horror of the shade”: “I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.”
These are not obscure poems, and the varying circumstances around their creation do not tightly align with the New Zealand terrorist’s ideology (though, it’s worth noting, Kipling’s legacy is bound up with racist imperialism). He chose them, plausibly, to undergird his broader message about taking the difficult but necessary action in the face of great odds. He could have turned anywhere in Western culture for other odes to lonely, steely bravery—among the most common story tropes there are—but it may be no coincidence that he drew specifically from the dead-white-male literary canon.
Other mass murderers have invoked different artworks to evoke the same sense of grandiose anti-heroism. James Holmes, who shot up an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012, found inspiration from the Joker of The Dark Knight. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who massacred Charleston churchgoers in 2015, quoted two movie characters in his manifesto. One was Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi in American History X: “I see all this stuff going on, and I don’t see anyone doing anything about it. And it pisses me off.” The other was the troubled teen vigilante of the 2011 manga adaptation Himizu: “Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.” The killer’s actions, it was widely noted at the time, betrayed these movies’ underlying critiques of violence and hate.
The language of messianic bravery can be adopted by anyone, of course, including those of noble intent. But there’s a particularly nauseating pattern in it being repeatedly invoked by men who kill groups of defenseless people. The Dylan Thomas work actually most relevant to the New Zealand killer’s case is thus not the one quoted in the manifesto, but the Hitler mockery movie. The Übermensch rhetoric that still poisons the world, Thomas suggested back then, is but the costume of pathetic men.