When the British Member of Parliament Jo Cox was assassinated nearly one year ago, a senseless crescendo to a long drizzling springtime of political resentment, I tried to take some comfort from the idea that this would, at least, put a stop to the worst of it. The perpetrator was a neo-fascist incensed by Cox’s advocacy for refugees and migrants, born Thomas Muir but who gave his name in court as “Death to Traitors, Freedom For Britain.” Surely, I thought, with dead bodies in the street some reflexive sense of decency would return to the Brexit campaign as voting day loomed. My country would have to realize that the bitter nationalism whipped up by politicians and the right-wing media was turning it into a dark, hopeless, brutal parody of itself. Although the stories of rape and mistreatment at migrant detention centers had rarely made headlines, people could react to the murder of a politician only with disgust at the politics that had brought us here.
I was wrong. It did something else. It was a lurch into barbarism, and once it happened there was no escape.
Britain is headed for another momentous vote, next month’s general election, and just like in 2016 the campaign has been punctured by an appalling act of violence. In the aftermath of the bombing in Manchester, there have been vast and heartbreaking signs of instinctive decency: local taxi drivers helping evacuate the survivors, strangers opening their homes to people in need of safety, thousands cramming into small rooms to donate blood, a city’s refusal to let one man’s vicious grasp for infamy set people against their neighbors. It feels wrong, almost blasphemous, to be talking about politics in the wake of a disaster, to turn the lives that were destroyed into figures for some dry electoral calculation. But terrorism is always political to begin with, and this atrocity will have its political effects.
Britain has become a far nastier place since the Brexit vote. Violence against ethnic and sexual minorities has soared, newspapers roar deadly threats from their front pages — “Enemies of the People,” or “Crush the Saboteurs” — and the political atmosphere has smogged up with implicit authoritarianism. People unhappy about Brexit are “traitors,” people who don’t love a flag that once flew over massacres and genocides on every continent are “elitists,” people who worry that a call for political upheaval has turned into a reassertion of nationalism and xenophobia enforced from above are moaners and whingers who need to be shut up. A bullish, brutish Britishness is inescapable.
Most of this sentiment is cathected in the person of Prime Minister Theresa May, who enjoys nearly unprecedented popularity among a population she mostly goes out of her way to avoid. While Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s rallies overflow, her speeches are given to a clumped handful of tightly vetted supporters. May chooses to project the image of a lifeless but capable bureaucrat, someone with the will to do what must be done, whose competence overrides any questions about whether all this is actually necessary. She offers, in the words of her drab campaign slogan, “strong and stable government in the national interest” — the final authoritarian expression of the “keep calm and carry on” poster, the grim message that was buried there all along.
But she’s offering nothing of the sort. Her record as home secretary and as prime minister is full of disasters and U-turns, and she seems to be propelled by a fanatical anti-migration ideology — not only is she determined to reduce inward migration even if it means a disastrous cancellation of trade agreements with the European Union, she has insisted that international students be included in immigration targets, potentially ruining Britain’s tertiary education industry for no good reason.
The election campaign is suspended out of respect for the victims, and there is no agreement on when it will start again. But in the meantime, it allows May to reaffirm that image of herself as a strong, stable, serious leader capable of making the tough decisions. If the Royal Air Force carries out strikes in Syria or Libya (where the Manchester culprit reportedly spent months before his massacre), it will be part of the organized violence of the state — but it also will have an unavoidable party-political effect: May and the Conservatives are the people who can be trusted to direct that violence. Corbyn, who generally refuses to fetishize armed force, is just a dreamer, incapable of the right kinds of sadism and vengeance.
So far, there haven’t been airstrikes. Instead, the government is sending 5,000 uniformed soldiers to patrol the streets. The process by which the army has been deployed is arcane: Military backup was requested by the police and has to be approved by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, an independent body made up of various police and government institutions, and the secretary of defence. The decision to put troops on the streets may or may not have been politically motivated (there are precedents: President George W. Bush pushed for the terrorism alert level to be raised before the 2004 election), but it has immediate political effects. For some politicians, a move such as this could be taken as chaos and weakness — France’s then-President François Hollande’s aggressive militarism didn’t endear him to the French public, and when Tony Blair deployed army tanks to Heathrow in 2003, it was widely seen as useless grandstanding.
But this time may be different: After all, we are a different people.
Since Brexit, all the social elements that may lead people to welcome soldiers marching in their streets and to applaud the person who put them there are present. A popular leader who seeks to concentrate her power (as she called the general election, May promised that “every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger”); an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and tension; a resurgent cult of the state and its symbols; the trauma of horrifying violence and the threat of more around the corner. This won’t just help the Conservatives, it’s a microcosm of everything they stand for.
In France, where the army has been deployed in cities and even rural areas for well over a year, the result has been police impunity and a boost for the far right. Le Monde Diplomatique has catalogued some of the worst abuses since the state of emergency was declared: In one, a man was placed under house arrest after a former employer informed on him for dubious reasons. The police who raided his flat were suspicious of a print he had of a bearded man; it turned out to be Leonardo da Vinci. In Britain, it’s hard to forget the hated presence of the army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and the occasional deadly violence it meted out to unwilling British citizens there — although much of our media is making every effort to forget these resonances. The presence of heavily armed men in ordinary life doesn’t so much enforce order as the impression that this is not ordinary, that we are living in dangerous and exceptional times, that we’re in an undeclared state of siege. And it’s not wrong.