Half a year has passed since Sir David Amess was murdered by Ali Harbi Ali, an Islamic terrorist who stabbed the MP to death with a foot-long carving knife. It is hard to imagine a more soberingly tragic fact. Yet politicians continue to suffer from a delusive blindness whenever militant Islam strikes. They prefer polite, sentimental fictions to a hard-headed engagement with reality.
Our political class has a proven reputation on this score. Five years ago, after 23 people including children were murdered by Salman Abedi in the Manchester Arena bombing, a BBC Question Time panel of impeccable worthies was assembled to be quizzed by members of the Salford community. Most of the panellists danced around the issue of what had motivated Abedi’s murderous act (clue: it was not the Quaker Society of Friends). They restricted themselves instead to such earth-shattering insights as the idea that love is better than hate, unity better than division, and all the rest of it.
Meanwhile, a more practical gentleman in the audience tried to raise the topic of Didsbury mosque, the place of worship that Abedi had attended throughout his adolescent years. The audience member read out an anti-Western leaflet that this mosque had issued on one of its open days. He then politely invited the panel to comment on whether such institutions perhaps facilitate, or at the very least fail to challenge, the cultivation of Islamic terrorism within their midst. But he was effectively shut down, not least by the show’s star presenter David Dimbleby.
The audience member should have known better than to introduce an awkward piece of evidence into a setting where politically correct platitudes are the measure of all wisdom.
Five years later, the British political class continues to flee from unpleasant facts. In the aftermath of Sir David’s murder, the debate within Parliament—Question Time had by this point become unwatchable and irrelevant—pivoted to the topic of internet harm. MPs made calls to expand and fast-track the Online Safety Bill, rather distastefully renamed ‘David’s Law’ in the light of his murder, in order to crack down on social media abuse and online anonymity.
This is a questionable policy in itself. Should we really trust governments to exercise such power over our digitised public square?
After an MP had just been murdered in cold blood, and without evidence that social media played any role in causing the heinous act, the spectacle of MPs wasting parliamentary time with irrelevant distractions was a shameful scandal. A rare note of good sense was struck by the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who commented that, while civility in politics matters, “we must not lose sight of the fact that David’s killing was an act of terror on the streets of our country.”
But at the time, this was about as far as anyone could go. It was regarded as in bad taste to dwell on the exact nature of Ali’s terrorist motivation. The 25-year-old Muslim of Somali origin might just as easily have been driven by a desire to restore the Catholic inquisition as to carry out a quest for martyrdom through jihad. After all, there was an ongoing investigation and an upcoming trial. Better to await more evidence than to speculate irresponsibly—though, to reiterate, this scrupulous commitment to silence did not stop MPs from making theatrical speeches about everything other than radical Islam.
Mark Francois, Conservative MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, had less to say against Salafism than he did against the Big Tech companies. He told his fellow MPs that he was “minded to drag Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to the bar of the house … if necessary, kicking and screaming, so they can look us all in the eye and account for their actions or rather their inactions that make them even richer than they already are.” In other words, there was not yet enough evidence to discuss Islamist ideology, but it seemed an appropriate gesture to give the Silicon Valley bros a thorough kicking.
But now we can be certain that Facebook and Twitter, scourges though they may be on the body politic, had nothing to do with the murder of Sir David Amess. Ali has now been sentenced to life in prison. His motives have been laid bare and all of the details of his unspeakable crime are in the public domain.
It did not emerge that Ali had any track record of threatening Sir David on social media, let alone through some anonymous profile. If anything, it seems probable that the people least willing to bite are the ones who bark into cyberspace. But Ali was perfectly serious about inflicting harm: no wonder he refrained from plotting terrorism on a platform where simply rehearsing basic biology can often draw unwelcome attention. Instead, as we learned during his trial, Ali took frequent, seemingly innocuous trips to Westminster to scout out possible targets—including Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, and Sir Keir Starmer—before landing on Sir David as his victim. He did not waste time dishing out abuse to any of these politicians on Facebook.
Nor was Ali’s Islamist rhetoric pumped out under the guise of social media anonymity. In actual fact, most of it was found not on Ali’s public accounts, but in his private Telegram messages, which were saturated with language about waging ‘jihad’ and killing ‘crusaders and other disbelievers.’
Again, more would surely be gained if politicians discussed the network of fanatics involved in these privately exchanged messages, rather than obsessing over new measures which, if implemented, will predominantly hit 14-year-old Facebook trolls.
Finally, there is the sad reality that Ali had been referred to Britain’s official counter-terror scheme as early as 2014. He was later discharged on the grounds that he was not thought to pose a security threat. Might that deadly oversight not be more worthy of a public dialogue than the insults thrown around by cave-dwelling nitwits on Twitter? In fact, the Daily Mail reports that 7 of the last 13 terror attacks in Britain have involved fanatics who were already known to the authorities.
To be clear, juggling death threats on Facebook and doxing on Twitter cannot be part of anyone’s job description. That rule should apply as much to MPs as it does to other public figures. But these evils, as well as being already unlawful, had no relation to Sir David’s murder. It is therefore a disgrace that they were made the subject of a moral panic in the aftermath of his slaughter, while the murderer’s fanatical motives, now clear beyond all reasonable doubt, were ignored on the grounds that they were a matter of interest only to divisive, vulgar, probably racist speculators.
The fact that there has been no re-energised parliamentary debate about the murder as the details have come fully to light is itself revealing. The Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, lovely and public-spirited though he is, managed only an abstract statement in favour of ‘kindness.’
Nobody should hold their breath for a comprehensive discussion about improving our capabilities against Islamist ideology and the networks in which it thrives and propagates. These remain uncomfortable topics to raise, not least because tackling them would require rather more in the way of proper action than sentimental guff. If recent history is a reliable guide, it is unlikely that Priti Patel’s vague statement that parts of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy “need to change” will beget anything substantial.
One of Parliament’s purposes is to redress real grievances, not to avoid them by parading imaginary ones. There are many public debates worth having after the trial of Sir David’s murderer. But it is a sign of our paralysis as a political culture that politicians seem to be incapable of engaging in any of them. Instead, they divert our attention to utterly irrelevant problems, far afield from the matter at hand, before throwing in a soppy celebration of ‘kindness’ for good measure.
For how much longer will the political class flee from reality rather than face unpleasant facts?