Public Inquiries on Counterterrorism: An Independent Appraisal of New Zealand's Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch Terrorist Attack

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Even though elected leaders of liberal democracies respond to major terrorist attacks by commissioning public inquiries, scholars have not yet fully explored these inquiries as a practice of the War on Terror. By undertaking an independent appraisal of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019 we seek to introduce empirical evidence of an important case of investigatory oversight to the more critical terrorism studies literature. Specifically, we examine how the Royal Commissioners interpreted their Terms of Reference, explore the ways in which they engaged with New Zealand’s security agencies as well as with various individuals, groups and communities beyond the public sector, and assess the quality of their recommendations. We argue that the Commissioners positioned themselves publicly as undertaking a remedial intervention in New Zealand’s counterterrorism effort, but their inquiry was, in fact, designed to reassure the public that the current security dispensation is largely fit for purpose and does not need major reform. The inquiry did little more than enable two carefully chosen Commissioners, imbued with a veneer of professional detachment but lacking in subject-matter expertise, to call for a strengthening of state security institutions, entrenching the hierarchies that already prevail within the national security system while shielding parliamentarians from accusations of disinterest, negligence or acts of omission. Consequently, New Zealand is no better off when it comes to its ability to understand the nature and scale of the threat posed by terrorism or to respond to an array of routine, as well as novel and surprise, security challenges.
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