As a Londoner, this week’s attack at Westminster came close to home. Like countless others, I have walked over Westminster Bridge and around the Houses of Parliament more times than I can remember. Westminster is more than just Big Ben and the MPs. It’s a historic site of protest, discussion, debate – and embodies not just self-seeking politicians, but many other traditions, including revolutionary ones past and present. It’s still the place where democracy can be discussed.
It’s self-evident that driving at innocent people of many nationalities with an SUV and stabbing an unarmed policeman to death are horrific acts. Whatever the motives and “reasons” of the perpetrator, such acts cannot be justified
It can damage political democracy, even if what goes on inside the Houses of Parliament is not entirely “ours” and not what many people understand as a real democracy. Acts of terror can stifle political debate. But the damage can only take place if such acts of violence are elevated to an existential threat to democracy.
Whether carried out by deranged individuals or by those inspired by terrorist organisations – individual acts of terror provide the state with justification for clamping down on the democratic rights of citizens and reinforcing surveillance and snooping.
They are often been used in this way by those in power to legislate repressive measures, declarations of war and the rise of dictatorship. You only need to look at history to see that – from the the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajewo, the Reichstag Fire in Germany to 9/11 in the United States, and New Labour’s anti-terror laws of 2005-6.
What Khalid Masood aka Adrian Elms aka Adrian Russell Ajao has proved yet again is that an individual who is prepared to die needs only a car and a knife in order to inflict horrible damage. The “war against terror” by the U.S., British and other governments is useless and powerless against such acts. Moreover it has been counter-productive.
Masood and others like him operate in a world dominated by corporate power where it is easy for people to become isolated and feel victimised. Low level criminals, disappointed young men and mentally unstable individuals then become susceptible to terrorist organisations operating inside and outside the prison system, or simply to act on their own for a brief moment of notoriety. Right wing, anti-Muslim politicians like Trump and others in Europe as well as in other countries only fuel the fires of resentment and outrage.
It’s the stoking up of an atmosphere of hatred, exclusion, religious and social intolerance, huge social inequality, presided over by states with war-like, aggressive attitudes that are the biggest threats to democracy. Working for a truly democratic society and systems of popular governance cannot magically overcome the deep-seated causes of such acts. But it’s the only truly constructive way that can make them history.