A terrorist attack disrupts the rhythm of routine, puncturing a hole on 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 members of Parliament praised for giving CPR to a dying police officer. But it also creates a space for the 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. There are bromides concocted to justify an increasingly militarized police force. There's 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 European Union referendum and the assassination of Labour politician Jo Cox, the response by the far right, and the sect of people in favor of Britain withdrawing from the EU that parrot many of its 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 multimillionaire co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, who tweeted at 5:23 PM: "Teresa [sic] May was Home Secretary for six year when over a million illegals were allowed into our country. I don't think I've ever felt more sick." On Thursday morning, police confirmed the attacker was born in Britain.
Leave.EU later released a statement—published on Westmonster, Banks's 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 the Islamic State, the use of torture and extraordinary rendition, the passing of exhaustive surveillance powers, and a controversial monitoring program targeting Muslim communities—testify to an excess of liberal decorum.
Much of the far right's criticism 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 terms of on-the-ground mobilizations, the far-right splinter group Britain First has been the first to capitalize, relocating a pre-planned protest against the development of a mosque on April 1, in Darwen, Lancashire, to central London, calling it the "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 more than 1,000 are interested.
But none of these responses quite match the wretched spectacle of former English Defence League (EDL) leader and tanning salon 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.
In response to the right wing and far right's manipulative reaction to Wednesday'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, England, 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 racialist and culturalist interpretations of terrorism abound. At the same time, we should recognize that the far right poses a unique threat on its own terms; the usual clichés about countering this with grassroots organizing 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 outmaneuvered. Countering Britain First's demonstration next month might be a moment to cohere that energy again and move it forward.
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