The Observer view on the killing of Sir David Amess

When he was fatally stabbed while holding a constituency surgery, Sir David Amess became the second MP to have been killed in the line of duty in just five years. A veteran parliamentarian who commanded immense respect and affection from colleagues of all parties, Amess’s death serves as a tragic reminder of the unreasonable risks our elected representatives are expected to bear in the course of their public service.

Amess was killed while undertaking one of the aspects of his role he saw as most important: during a drop-in surgery at which his constituents could come and raise their concerns. Every Friday, MPs like Amess hold these sessions at libraries, church halls and constituency offices. They have none of the fortress-like protection that surrounds parliament; it is where they are most vulnerable to those who would do them harm. Yet parliamentarians did not abandon them even after Jo Cox MP was brutally murdered by a far-right terrorist in her Yorkshire constituency in 2016. Amess’s relationships with his constituents informed his work as an MP; after meeting a woman with endometriosis, he spent years trying to raise awareness of the often-debilitating condition that affects women. Over the past 20 years, he has campaigned against fuel poverty, after a constituent died of hypothermia.

We know little about the circumstances surrounding the fatal attack on Amess, beyond the fact that the police are treating it as a terrorist incident and are investigating a “potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism”. 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.

But Amess’s killing has rightly raised the same questions asked after Andrew Pennington was killed trying to protect the MP Nigel Jones in 2000, after Stephen Timms was stabbed during a constituency surgery in 2010, and after the murder of Jo Cox. Do we do enough to protect our MPs from harm given their profile, the fact that they can become a target for protracted hate and the threats they face as a result?

It is wrong that these questions only really get asked after someone has been killed or seriously wounded. In the five years since Jo Cox was assassinated, the Metropolitan police report that the number of threats against MPs has been rising, with female MPs and those of colour particularly targeted. Many have seen those who have made violent threats against them convicted and sent to prison: the man charged with sending Jess Phillips and Rosie Cooper death threats in 2019; the member of a neo-Nazi group found guilty of plotting to kill Cooper with a machete in 2018; the man found guilty of harassing Luciana Berger in 2016; the SNP member with a prior conviction of carrying a knife who was found guilty of threatening sexual violence against Joanna Cherry earlier this year; the man jailed last year for threatening Yvette Cooper. The black MP Diane Abbott has spoken of the hundreds of racist messages she has received every day; the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has 24-hour police protection as a result of the volume of death threats he receives because of his skin colour and faith; a Labour investigation found that the lesbian MP Angela Eagle received hundreds of “abusive, homophobic and frightening” messages from party members. The safety of those in public life may only pierce the public consciousness after someone has been killed. But this is something that will continuously weigh on the minds not just of MPs, but of their families and staff. It is too much to ask of any parent, partner or child.

The informality with which constituents can seek support from and petition their MPs in person is a prized aspect of British democracy. But Amess’s killing must prompt a reassessment of what can be done to reduce the risks of violence towards MPs in their own constituencies, whether through a greater police presence or advance security checks. It is extremely worrying that some MPs report that the threats they receive are not taken seriously by the police: that must change.

But this goes beyond physical security. MPs have to put up with a shocking amount of social media abuse threatening violence, some of which comes from their own party members. The terrorism that motivated Jo Cox’s murderer is not just aimed at mortally wounding our elected representatives, it is about striking fear into them in a way that interferes with their ability to do their jobs and making citizens scared to put themselves forward for office in the first place. A lot of social media abuse will not tip over into real-world violence, but it can contribute to the online radicalisation of individuals with a propensity towards violence.

Our political discourse has coarsened. There are more who try to win debates by dehumanising opponents and launching ad hominem attacks rather than relying on the strength of their arguments. Social media platforms reward the adoption of ever-more radical and uncompromising positions; this level of polarisation does not reflect real-world public opinion yet it cannot but infect our politics as a result of the threats it produces and the activism it encourages. 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.

Something that stands out from David Amess’s obituaries this weekend was his embrace of civility in politics and the deep friendships he cultivated with politicians across the aisle. It would be a fitting legacy if his tragic, senseless killing prompted a re-evaluation of the immense sacrifice all MPs make in serving the public and a recalibration of our overly toxic political discourse.

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