It took no time at all for the right to start spreading misinformation, using a tragedy for their own ends.
(Top image: the lead image on an event page for the Britain First-organised "London MARCH Against Terrorism!" Image: Facebook / Britain First)
A terrorist attack upends the rhythm of routine, puncturing a hole in the surface of social life. This creates a space for heroic moral action – think of those who came running to the victims' aid on Westminster Bridge, or the MP praised for giving CPR to a dying police officer – but also for its opposite. Society's worst instincts come rushing through that social wound: a swirling vortex of unarticulated prejudice and baseless assumption.
We've seen much of this before: the period before the attacker's race or religious identity is pronounced – the period in which the media, judiciary and state are unsure whether to call it "terrorism" or something else. The bromides concocted to justify an increasingly militarised police force. The banal championing of an "undivided London", which obscures the city's many divisions and miseries.
But since this was the first terrorist attack in Britain since the EU referendum – leaving aside that foundational act of Brexit terror: the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox – the response by the far-right, and the sect of Brexiteers that parrot many of their views, has been louder and more determined than usual. Although it is tempting to ignore them in these circumstances – to see them as risible or parodic – it's worth taking stock of what they're saying. This isn't just because their politics pose an immediate threat to Muslims and other minorities in Britain, but also because their ideas, slowly and subtly, percolate through society into the realm of acceptable thought.
One of the first to offer his judgement was Arron Banks, the multi-millionaire co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, who tweeted at 5.23PM: "Teresa [sic] May was Home Secretary for 6 year when over a million illegals were allowed into our country. I don't think I've ever felt more sick." This morning, police confirmed the attacker was British-born.
Leave.EU later released a statement – published on Westmonster, Banks' Breitbart-style website – stating that Britain must not "pander to political correctness" in its response to the attack. As if the British government's anti-terror strategy – a 16-year "war on terror" in several countries; an ongoing bombing campaign against Islamic State; the use of torture and extraordinary rendition; the passing of exhaustive surveillance powers; and a controversial monitoring programme targeting Muslim communities – testify to an excess of liberal decorum.
Much of the far-right's vitriol has also been focused on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, with news articles and memes claiming that he took too long to make a statement, and insinuating that his sympathies lie elsewhere. Paul Joseph Watson, the Editor-at-Large of InfoWars, has been one of the most vocal in condemning the mayor for this, which is no surprise: he and InfoWars have been obsessed with Khan's religious identity since he was elected last year, referring to him in headlines as "London's Muslim Mayor".
"In response to the right-wing and far-right's manipulative reaction to yesterday's attack, reasoned and empirical debate is unlikely to get us very far."
Donald Trump Jr also joined in, sharing an article from The Independent published in September of 2016 – which has also been spread as a decontextualised meme, re-tweeted by Joseph Watson – in which the mayor appears to take a relaxed attitude to terror attacks. The headline reads "Sadiq Khan: London mayor says terror attacks 'part and parcel' of living in a major city". As other publications have pointed out, the headline misrepresents Khan's statement, in which he said he was "losing sleep" over the possibility of an attack in London and had ordered "an urgent review" of the Metropolitan Police's counter-terror tactics.
In terms of on-the-ground mobilisations, the far-right groupuscule Britain First has been the first to capitalise, relocating a pre-planned protest against the development of a mosque on the 1st of April in Darwen, Lancashire to central London, calling it "London MARCH against Terrorism!" The event's Facebook page notes that the protest is against "radical Islamic terrorism" – the phrasing made famous by President Trump – and encourages "all patriots" to attend. So far, 339 people are going and over 1,000 are interested.
But none of these responses quite match the wretched spectacle of former EDL leader and sun bed shop owner Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson), who, in his capacity as a presenter on the Canadian website Rebel Media, went to Westminster hours after the attack to condemn Muslims, verses from the Quran and politicians who allow immigrants into the country. He was joined by a sycophant doing a bad impersonation of Milo Yiannopoulos (who, himself, does a bad impersonation of Christopher Hitchens), who tried to evoke the emotion of being a bereaved family receiving a "knock on the door tonight" – as if his performance, his shoddy instrumentalisation of tragedy for racist ends, was an authentic expression of care for those families.
In response to the right-wing and far-right's manipulative reaction to yesterday's attack – and the inevitable doubling-down of repressive state powers to follow – reasoned and empirical debate is unlikely to get us very far. The fact that only a tiny number of terror attacks committed in Europe are religious in nature – the largest proportion is motivated by separatist politics – is immaterial in a country where anti-refugee sentiment and Islamophobia is so much easier to marshal than the facts.
When David Cameron gave a speech in 2011 denouncing the "failure of multiculturalism" on the same day that the EDL rallied in Luton, he illustrated the subtle continuity between official thinking and the far-right. We need to be sensitive to that relationship in the following weeks as racialised and culturalist interpretations of terrorism abound. At the same time, we should recognise that the far-right pose a unique threat on their own terms; the usual clichés about countering this with grassroots organising and anti-fascism remain as true as ever.
The recent closure of an alt-right gallery in London under sustained pressure from anti-fascist groups shows how, once they're taken offline, far-right ideologues and groups can be easily outmanoeuvred. Countering Britain First's demonstration next month might be a moment to cohere that energy again and move it forward.
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