Mary Dejevsky: Fact: our politicians are not necessarily safer than theirs

That the blame has settled so soon on the malevolence of US politics fosters the conclusion that their politicians are uniquely threatened
Click to follow
The Independent Online

No one can accuse Sarah Palin of bending with the prevailing wind. Any hope that the fevered pitch of US political rhetoric would cool following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson were confounded the moment she uttered the words "blood libel". Whether or not she understood the anti-Semitic import of the expression – or the fall-out it may yet have on her career – this was hardly a formulation calculated to calm passions.

Ms Palin is angry, as are adherents to her uncompromising strand of the American right. They were angry before about the direction of US politics under President Obama, and they are angry all over again about charges that their martial lexicon might have contributed – at very least – to a climate in which an elected Democratic politician could be shot. In fact, many accusers went much further, claiming that the gunman took his cue directly from the language and imagery of the Palin camp. His action at the shopping mall that day was, they said, just a logical consequence of the politics of hate. That is quite some indictment.

And I have to say that, for all the tragedy of the Tucson shootings, it was a pleasant change to watch US Democrats finally giving as good as they got. Over the months, Obama's supporters have often seemed at a loss to parry the fearsome blows raining down from the Palin right. The speed and ferocity with which they seized on the attempted assassination of Ms Gifford to apportion political guilt hinted that they might at last be prepared to fight.

The cudgels were taken up here in Europe, too. The depravity of current American political discourse was singled out for blame with as much alacrity as across the Atlantic. It had always been only a matter of time, liberal critics said, before the vicious word became father to the deed. America's radio shock-jocks and Murdoch's Fox TV were similarly demonised. In such a charged atmosphere, it was claimed, was it any wonder that politics turned murderous?

The European response had another, oh so predictable, dimension. With customary hand-wringing, people lamented the brutality endemic in US society and asked whether the Tucson killing spree would not finally convince Americans to do something about their guns. The short answer – if anyone is interested – is: No. The slightly longer one, beloved of the US gun lobby, is that "guns don't kill people; people kill people". The US is a more violent country than any in Europe; far more violent, too, than Canada, and gun ownership is – and will long remain – a right.

This is one fact of US life that Europeans routinely fail to understand. But revived hope that Americans could be weaned off their guns is not the only false message being drawn from what happened last Saturday in Tucson. The other concerns the direct line being drawn between the killings and the pernicious political rhetoric so entrenched in today's United States – despite the lack, so far, of any evidence that the suspect actually had a political motive.

Even if he did, though, the fact that the blame has settled so soon on the malevolence of US politics fosters the conclusion that their politicians are uniquely threatened. This allows Americans to engage in a fresh bout of self-flagellation, even as it consoles Europeans that the shooting of Giffords could not happen here. Unfortunately, such confidence is misplaced.

Last year, right here in Britain, the former Labour minister and MP for East Ham was very seriously injured by a young woman constituent, who stabbed him after visiting his regular "surgery". And while there are still doubts about the motive of the Tucson gunman, there is no doubt at all about why Roshonara Choudhry attacked Stephen Timms. Described as a brilliant student before she dropped out of university, Choudhry practically boasted that she had wanted to punish Timms for voting for the Iraq war.

At her trial, the court heard she had been radicalised by the internet sermons of a Muslim cleric associated with al-Qa'ida. Throughout the proceedings, Choudhry refused to recognise the court. This was an ideologically motivated crime if ever there was one.

I have never quite understood why the near-fatal stabbing of a senior British MP did not prompt the sort of outcry that has attended the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords. At best, it is because Timms is a modest man who did not want any fuss, because Britons are generally more phlegmatic than Americans, and because we have been steeled to such things, within many people's living memory, by the assassination of Airey Neave MP and the attempted annihilation of the Thatcher Cabinet at Brighton. At worst, it is because the consequences for community relations of the truth – a young, British-born Muslim, alienated to the point of trying to murder her MP – were deemed inflammatory, and efforts were made to play it down.

With typical sang-froid, Timms has gone back to holding "surgeries", while taking precautions. But the MP for my own, central London, constituency is not alone in citing security as a reason to meet constituents only by appointment.

Nor is Britain, a relatively peaceful society by international standards, alone. The Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh, was murdered in a Stockholm department store seven years ago by a deranged stalker. In 1990, Oskar Lafontaine, then leader of Germany's Social Democrats, was stabbed to within an inch of his life, and the same year, in a separate attack, Wolfgang Schäuble – now finance minister in Angela Merkel's government – was shot and partially paralysed by a would-be assassin. Four years before, the Swedish prime minister, Olaf Palme, was shot dead while returning home from the cinema.

So there is certainly no reason for complacency about the safety of politicians, either in Britain or anywhere else in Europe, and we should not be misled, by the very American breast-beating that has followed the Tucson shootings and the ritual calls for gun control, into believing that they are. As political passions rise, information becomes more open, and meeting voters in person remains essential for anyone seeking election in a democracy, the risks to politicians – everywhere – are only likely to increase.