Artillery Row

What we talk about when we want to do nothing

The problematic discourse is disingenuous opportunism

There is something about Twitter that makes it almost impossible to resist not only making but publicising snap judgements. As soon as news broke that Sir David Amess MP had been stabbed, online commentators were drawing conclusions. Some blamed incendiary verbiage from the left, such as Angela Rayner MP calling Conservatives “scum”. Others blamed the government, with former PCC Arfon Jones, saying “this is what happens” when you have a government that “sows hate”. No one, to be clear, knew what had happened.

Evidence that has emerged since, following Sir David’s tragic death, has not been kind to the “civility in politics” narrative. The killer is reported to have been Ali Harbi Ali, apparently the 25-year-old son of a former media spokesman for the Prime Minister of Somalia. The suspect had reportedly been referred to the government’s anti-radicalisation scheme Prevent and has been detained under terrorism legislation. This makes it unlikely, though not impossible, that he was radicalised by watching people argue about Brexit or lockdowns.

Somehow, journalists and politicians have maintained their initial narrative. It is as if they are living in a parallel universe where none of this news has been reported. Their discourse flows on, river-like, and nothing one hurls into it can make a difference.

So, we learn that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has not ruled out an end to online anonymity. Where does one begin? There is no evidence that the suspect posted anonymously or was influenced by anonymous posters. Moreover, such legislation — as well as being comically unenforceable — would effectively be directed towards excluding unpopular and otherwise unconventional opinions. Perhaps that is one reason why journalists and politicians often seem to like it. It appears in discourse with the baffling and exasperating regularity of your drunk friend’s ex-wife.

In case I have not emphasised it enough, I am not sure what was going through the killer’s head

According to Rosamund Urwin of the Sunday Times, a “senior Tory” said, “I can’t believe David has lost his life to this endless madness. But in a week’s time, people will move on and continue doing the things that cause these problems.” That MPs are receiving murder and rape threats, as Urwin reports, is unconscionable. It is worth talking about. But is it worth talking about now when, as I have said, there is no evidence that the suspect was engaged in or influenced by such behaviour? Such evidence might exist. But we have seen none of it.

MPs can be excused for not thinking entirely clearly at a time like this. One of their colleagues has just been murdered after all. The most shameless example of opportunism appears in an editorial in the Observer. Noting reports that the suspect was potentially influenced by Islamic extremism, the editorialist claims:

There will be those who seek to deploy these scant details in service of their political agendas; to politicise this tragedy in such a way is abhorrent.

Scant details! Politicising! Abhorrent! Read on a little further, though, and we are told:

…social media companies have a duty to reconfigure their platforms so they do not incentivise spiteful speech and hateful sentiment.

No details! Just common sense! Very good! I hope the absurdity of this need not be dwelled on.

Debates about civility and social media are comfortable, familiar terrain. Again, it would be foolish to suggest that there is nothing to them. Online abuse can be nasty and threats of violence are reprehensible. But one cannot help suspecting that the media and politicians prefer to hold forth on this well-trodden ground than to consider what seems to be the more probable motivation behind Sir David’s killing.

Who knows? Perhaps the murderer had some eccentric individual grievance. Perhaps he was insane. It is too early for definitive conclusions. But if he was inspired by jihadist ideology, as is suspected, it would not be the first time an MP has been attacked by an Islamic extremist. Stephen Timms MP was stabbed by an Al Qaeda sympathiser in similar circumstances in 2010, though he made a merciful recovery. In 2017, Keith Palmer, a gallant unarmed police officer, was stabbed to death by a jihadi who was trying to break into the Palace of Westminster after running down four people as he drove along the pavement on Westminster Bridge.

We have a political culture that conflates speech with action until no one sees the difference

Incidents such as the stabbing of a Christian evangelist at Speakers Corner in July, or the murder of five people by a Muslim convert in Norway last week, have demonstrated the ongoing threat of militant theocratic ideology in Europe. But this is a lot more difficult to speak about than, say, civility in politics. We run the risk of offending Observer editorialists and, besides, there are no ideas for ameliorating the problem that are as palatable as kicking those foul-mouthed and uncouth anons offline. Trolls are easier to discuss than terrorists.

In case I have not emphasised it enough, I am not sure what was going through the killer’s head. I have, alas, no capacity for mind reading, and it seems pointless to speculate in any rich detail when more evidence should be released within the coming days. One might as well leave one’s firmer judgements until then.

But the spinning of a web of discourse that bears no perceptible relation to the event that brought it into being is a morbidly fascinating phenomenon. It speaks unflatteringly of a political culture that conflates speech with action until no one sees the difference — and a media culture where a narrative can take hold and sustain itself on prejudices and emotional investment even as it looks increasingly implausible. 

Yet perhaps the murderer will turn out to have had a Twitter account where he poured out a stream of anonymous invective against MPs for doing too much, or too little, in relation to COVID-19. It might seem unlikely but our world is full of odd surprises.

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