Sam Leith Sam Leith

The death of David Amess and the narcissism of the discourse

Reactions to the MP’s murder were all too hasty and predictable


The speed with which tragedy turns into farce these days is quite something. Within minutes of Sir David Amess’s death being announced, social media was filled with sizzling hot takes. The back-and-forth centred on whether the decline in ‘civility’ and the use of dehumanising language in politics was to blame for the murder of an MP. It recalled nothing so much as the recriminations after Jo Cox’s death, except that the teams here had, as it were, swapped shirts at half-time.

Back then, the left more or less directly attributed Jo Cox’s murder to the language used by the partisans of Brexit: ‘traitors’, ‘saboteurs’ and so on. Back then, the right accused them of playing politics with a tragedy. This time, voices on the right made a more or less a direct link to Angela Rayner denouncing Tories as ‘scum’. And those on the left pooh-poohed it as tasteless political opportunism.

All of this was, as it took only about 24 hours to discover, completely beside the point. Our best current information seems to indicate that the action in this case was quite elsewhere: Sir David’s killer appears to have been an Islamist rather than a left-wing or a right-wing partisan. There’s no reason yet to believe that the coarsening of political language had anything much to do with it either way.

Motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, group polarisation… these are all very analogue human behaviours

So the murder of David Amess, who by every account I’ve read was a profoundly modest and decent man, may not have very much to tell us about anything. Pain, grief, loss, horror — sometimes they don’t tell us anything except that such things occur and that they are unexpected and unspeakably sad. But the speed and predictability with which the reactions I describe arose, and the shamelessly partisan and inconsistent way they were promulgated, seem to me to say something about the state of the public conversation; about the greedy need to make this awful event mean something, and preferably to make it mean exactly what you and your team already thought.

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