When bad people do bad things, it is always the case that people with the best intentions will seek systemic explanations that are often unhelpful. We currently do not know why Ali Harbi Ali chose to do what he did, actions that led to the brutal murder of David Amess MP, a friend of freedom, public servant, and a champion of community engagement. Speculation, however, is inevitable, and one meme doing the rounds is the notion of ‘at-home radicalisation’ as a result of lockdown.
This is the idea that someone with nothing to do all day bar download YouTube videos with extremist content can be motivated to commit atrocities, and that something must be done. The first part is true, but has nothing to do with YouTube videos. The main issue with the sentiment is the second part.
People who commit acts of violence against politicians tend to have one or more of three motivations: personal, political and pathological. Thomas Mair, the murderer of Jo Cox MP, appears to have had all three. He suffered mental health problems (although was declared sane at the time of the attack); he deplored liberal left views, regarding their proponents as ‘collaborators’; and regarded Cox a prominent pro-European as a target for that reason. Mair was a fantasist, a Nazi and a terrorist, in part inspired by David Copeland, the racist homophobe nail-bomber who killed three and maimed 140 in his evil London campaign in 1999. An Islamist extremist, Roshonara Choudhry, attempted to murder Stephen Timms MP in 2010. Robert Ashman murdered Councillor Andrew Pennington and maimed Nigel Jones MP in 2000 in a similar attack. Ian Gow MP was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1990, and Airey Neave MP by the Irish National Liberation Army in 1979.
Political murderers remain rare in Britain, certainly compared with less peaceful democracies and authoritarian regimes. It is not obvious that politicians are more at risk here than other authority figures or high profile people, bar that they are in the public eye and representative of a cause or idea, whether the British state, liberal democracy or something specific. Their murderers conversely appear to be utterly conventional in their motivations and pathology, with sociopathic or psychotic traits, delusions, and a constructed narrative built on thin understanding of some cause that appeals to their poor quality analysis of their own misery. Something that transforms the planning of senseless acts of violence and terror into a warped moral purpose.
Clearly, they are not all transformed from nice lovely people into monsters by YouTube or lockdown. There are some general truths here: social alienation, poor judgement, and an unhealthy fascination with extremism are complex factors in shaping people, something often reduced to ‘being radicalised’. But such things are not new, even if the tools change or there is a traumatic social event like a pandemic. You no longer need to join a hippy commune to find Charles Manson-like ideologues, or travel to Pakistan to find out how to do wicked things. Charismatic leaders, Armageddon narratives and social shocks from the external environment are as old as civilisation. But the underlying issue is the quest to find these things and weave them into a justification for murderous hate, not that we now have the Internet.
Liberals then should resist efforts to use such events to demand the erosion and erasure of basic liberties, either generally or specifically online. The idea that the state or corporations can control social contacts to eliminate the root causes of radicalisation are as delusional and dangerous as the fantasies of the radicals. If a medium is monitored it will be avoided, and generalised monitoring is far more likely to highlight that risk to bad actors than targeted surveillance. Monitoring alone will not stop all bad acts; whether general or specific, there is no defence to random acts planned in secret. You don’t need a terrorism manual to plan a knife attack. Meanwhile, the consequences of heightened security fears can be paranoid and dangerous enforcement – for example, the killing of John Charles de Menezes by police offices with bad intelligence. Or less sensationally the misappropriation of personal and private data by civil servants, or abuse of state powers, and covering up the same.
We do not want to mimic the Chinese Communist Party every time something bad happens. Lone killers and terrorist groups are frightening, but a surveillance state determined to keep us all safe, at any cost, is truly terrifying. Parliamentary hysteria should be peacefully resisted with reason, upholding rights, and ensuring targeted protection and enforcement is properly supported where needed. At-home radicalisation is not a helpful framing for doing this better.