We must not lose sight of ourselves in the symbolism of Westminster

Police officer in front of Elizabeth Tower, London

Image: Telegraph

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins said “[t]he symbolism is impossible to escape”. It feels like an assault on democracy, an assault on the Palace of Westminster.

But it’s not.

This is Jenkins point. We must not be reactionary in a way which satisfies the (supposed) objectives of attacks such as these. In this case, Britain and its allies must recognise that this was the “not if but when”; a scenario not unlike what they have planned, exercised, and prevented before.

Attacks on highly emotive targets are designed to¬†cause an assault on democracy, but themselves simply highlight the most fragile points in our ideals. We are most fragile where we are afraid, lose trust in the goodwill of our community, and start to question our intuition that free, prosperous societies keep us safe. The debate walks the line between privacy and security; between “if you’ve got nothing to hide” and “show probable cause”; and it is in this debate that we begin to lose sight of the values that actually create and maintain our security.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said “I know no class of my fellowmen, however just, enlightened, and humane, which can be wisely and safely trusted absolutely with the liberties of any other class.” I have always believed that this thought reflects of American slavery what us-and-them mentality reflects of security policy: when deciding how to deal with the intangible adversary – “them” – it is never possible to make good policy. Security policy must be grounded not in what threats it removes, but what threats it creates. Policy that creates power inequities, strong financial interests, and undesirable cultural shifts, no matter the risks it mitigated, always makes us less safe. Risks that are strategically mitigated are those that we are aware of; those that will be created by policy impacts are unpredictable.

This is why it is vital that we, the U.K. and likeminded states, do not lose sight of our values, and value shaped policy when confronted by the smoke and mirrors of emotive symbolism like the targeting of Westminster. Had the target been the palace at Holyrood, or St James, the same conclusions about its meaning would not be drawn. Then, there would be questions about republicanism, growing inequality and conservative austerity policies.

It’s tempting to analyse the significance of the attack, and to draw conclusions about the direction of the world. But to do that is to forget that drawing these conclusions closes off other lines of analysis that may draw closer to our desire for safety and security. To extrapolate that democracy itself, the values of freedom of expression, gender equality, liberal societies are under substantive threat, excludes conclusions on the complexity of the global Information Age, where an individual can induce themselves to radical violence entirely in the isolation of their own home. It also forgoes improving policy frameworks on employment rates and living place of resourcing emergency response exercises and police recruitment. The breadth and nuance of factors leading to vents like we have seen in London is lost.

Acts of extreme, sudden violence in political climates of divisiveness, mistrust and scarcity must not push us to lose sight of the society we want to live in, and build for the prosperity of future generations. The words “National Security” must not cause a blinding to policy detail and tracked, assessed, properly measured intended and unintended outcomes. And citizens of liberal, privileged societies must not forget to hold fast to values which create trust, inclusion and compassion in a world where the climate induces sporadic attacks on the history of democratic thought.

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