Why is Sir David Amess dead? The proximate explanation of the death of an MP that personified the best of parliamentary service is grimly straightforward: a horrifying act of violence during his weekly Friday meetings with his constituency. But what of the psychological, political, or ideological build-up to that moment? What drove someone to stab a dedicated public servant to death as his horrified constituents looked on?
To have read the British press in recent days is to be left with the impression that Amess’s death was, first and foremost, a consequence of a shortage of civility of British public life.
A more civilized political culture, it is suggested, would have spared us this violent attack. An Observer editorial complained that “our political discourse has coarsened.” The newspaper calls for Amess’s death to prompt a “re-evaluation of the immense sacrifice all MPs make in serving the public and a recalibration of our overly toxic political discourse” and argues that “individuals engaging in public debate have a responsibility to think about the consequences of behaviour that tips into the bullying and harassment of public figures; social media companies have a duty to reconfigure their platforms so they do not incentivise spiteful speech and hateful sentiment.”
The Observer was not alone in arguing that the killing should prompt a crackdown on online speech. One of a series of measures reportedly being considered by Priti Patel, Britain’s Home Secretary, in response to the attack is to somehow do away with anonymity on social media. In recent days, Matt Warman, a Conservative MP who until recently served as a minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has called on “major platforms. . . . to take faster action when councillors and MPs report the kind of behavior that would be illegal in the real world, and that starts with accepting that anonymity provides cover for language that would never be used to anybody’s face.”
But was Amess’s killer an online troll who spiraled downward from virtual hatred to real-world violence? Much remains unknown about the murder. But many in the U.K. seem reluctant to tackle head on the one detail revealed about the attacker’s possible motive.
“The early investigation has revealed a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism,” said police in a statement released just hours after the fatal stabbing. The Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command is leading the investigation into the attack. Yet this essential fact could be overshadowed in media coverage by MPs detailing the online abuse they receive for doing their jobs—a real problem, to be sure, but not one that seems central to the story of Amess’s death.
The Observer editorial that argues that the killing should prompt social media companies to “reconfigure” their platforms is explicit about the need to downplay the only concrete claim about the killer’s motive made so far. “There will be those who seek to deploy these scant details in service of their political agendas,” it argues. “To politicise this tragedy in such a way is abhorrent.”
To decry politicization while arguing for a particular political response is hardly a convincing position. And to ignore the specifics of this fatal killing, and its possible motive, is to fail to take seriously the nature of this threat to MPs. According to the BBC, Ali Harbi Ali, the man now in police custody after Friday’s attack, had been referred to Prevent, the UK’s counter-extremism program, some years ago. As reported in the Sunday Times, Whitehall sources described Ali as a “self-radicalised” lone operative known to counterterrorist police.
And yet, at times, this fact has played second-fiddle to a general-purpose conversation about the dangers of working as an MP and the nastiness of online discourse. Britain is avoiding an uncomfortable discussion in favor of an easier story, in which nefarious social media platforms have led us all astray and we just need to be nicer to one another.
Amess’s murder, the second fatal attack on an MP in five years, will rightly prompt hard questions about how accessible Britain’s elected officials can be to those they represent. Unfortunately, added security now seems a necessary step.
But the tragedy should also prompt renewed attention to the specific problem of Islamist violence and a hard-nosed discussion of how Prevent might actually live up to its name. To bypass that debate, as some in Britain seem determined to do, is to fail to understand why a dedicated parliamentarian was killed—and to risk it happening again.
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