LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other British leaders paid tribute on Saturday morning at a church in east London where a Tory lawmaker was fatally stabbed a day earlier as the country grappled with another apparent episode of solitary terrorism.
A grim Mr Johnson – joined by Opposition Leader Keir Starmer and other officials – laid flowers outside the Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, a sleepy seaside community that was devastated on Friday when lawmaker David Amess was assaulted during a routine meeting with voters.
Police arrested a 25-year-old man at the scene and said they were conducting searches at two locations in the London area. Metropolitan police officially declared the attack a terrorist episode, with a potential link to Islamist extremism, but they have yet to identify the man, who they say acted alone. The BBC, citing government sources, stated he was a British national who appeared to be of Somali descent.
The brutal attack, at midday and in public view, stunned the British political establishment and stirred questions about the safety of MPs. Lawmakers regularly meet with their constituents, unprotected, to hear their concerns and grievances in sessions – called surgeries – which can sometimes get heated.
An attack outside of such a session in 2016 killed Jo Cox, a Labor MP. Another, in 2010, left Stephen Timms, also a Labor MP, seriously injured after being stabbed in the abdomen.
Mr Amess’ stabbing also rekindled memories of other attacks by radicalized individuals, most recently in February 2020, when a 20-year-old man with a history of extremism was shot and killed by the police after stabbing two pedestrians in south London. .
This man, Sudesh Amman, had just been released halfway through a three-year sentence for distributing extremist material and possessing material that could be useful in preparing for a terrorist attack. He was followed by undercover police, who interrupted the daytime assault on a busy street.
In November 2019, police shot dead Usman Khan, 28, on London Bridge after he embarked on a frenzied stabbing wave, killing two people and injuring three. Mr Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants born in Britain, had previously been convicted of being part of a group that was plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange.
In April, the Johnson government tightened terrorism laws, requiring those convicted of serious terrorism to serve a minimum of 14 years in prison, under tighter supervision. Some legal critics argue that prolonging prison terms only serves to further radicalize offenders.
As Scotland Yard scrambled for answers on Saturday, public officials paid tribute to Mr Amess’ long record in government service.
Essex Police Commissioner Roger Hirst, who has jurisdiction over Leigh-on-Sea, said in a statement that it was “a gloomy moment of reflection to remember a man who worked so hard for his community, which served those he represented with passion and made a real difference to Southend.
“As we try to cope with these tragic events, it is important that we remember the man he was and the contribution he made,” said Commissioner Hirst.
In the normally quiet streets of the city, the sudden spasm of violence had not yet completely subsided. On Saturday morning, police sounded residents near the church, looking for witnesses. The chaplains consoled a steady stream of people who visited the area where Mr. Amess was killed.
Alan Dear, 76, a local councilor, spoke tearfully about the lawmaker, who he said had helped him in his own campaign for a local office.
âShe was just a fantastic person, very kind, loving and gentle,â Mr. Dear said. âHe’s spent his whole life – 40 years taking care of people. All he really wanted was to solve people’s problems.
More than just an attack on a friend, Mr Dear said the stabbings hit one of the mainstays of political life in Britain.
“It was an attack on David, but it was also an attack on democracy in this country,” he said. âIt is very important that we stay in touch with our constituents.
Mr Dear said lawmakers should be offered better protections, but not at the expense of those ties to voters. Either way, the attack sparked an urgent debate on the inadequacy of current measures.
A Conservative lawmaker, Tobias Ellwood, has called for a temporary suspension of face-to-face meetings until a safety review is completed. Another, Michael Manufacturer, said it would be safer for MPs to meet voters by appointment “rather than making a location and its location known in advance with anyone who may walk on the street.”
Longtime Labor member Harriet Harman told the BBC she would urge Mr Johnson to support a special multi-party inquiry to look for ways to improve the safety of lawmakers.
Stuart Andrew, Deputy Chief Whip of the House of Commons, said that while yesterday’s events had made him “anxious, naturally” he was determined not to be put off and would hold his public constituency meeting on Saturday. . in honor of Mr. Amess.
Interior Minister Priti Patel has asked police to review security and contact every lawmaker. Speaking near the scene of the attack, Ms Patel said that “we cannot be intimidated by an individual or motivation or persons with motives to prevent us from functioning in the service of our elected democracy.”
Friends of Mr Amess said he was known for his passionate campaign for animal rights, as well as his social conservatism. He supported the ban on fox hunting, a position he disagreed with some Conservative colleagues, and sponsored a law banning the cruel tying of horses.
Mr. Amess was also a strong supporter of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, which campaigns for the overthrow of the Iranian government. The group has drawn a bipartisan roster of American supporters, including John R. Bolton, who served as national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump, and Howard Dean, former Democratic Party chairman.
There was no evidence linking the attack to Mr. Amess’ support for the PMOI.
David Jones, Conservative Member of Parliament and head of the British Committee for Freedom in Iran, which supports the PMOI, hailed Mr Amess as “a champion of human rights and democracy in Iran for more than three decades “.
For the people of Leigh-on-Sea, the absurdity of the attack was hard to understand, let alone accept.
“I just want to know, why? Said Audrey Martin, 66, who was shopping for groceries when Mr Johnson and the other executives arrived to lay flowers. “Why did he do it and why did he choose to come to Leigh-on-Sea?”
Fidelia McGhee, 48, who lives near the site of the attack, said Mr Amess has always championed local causes. While she described herself as a longtime Labor voter, she praised him as a kind and committed politician. She called the attack “the stuff of nightmares” that would leave an indelible mark on the city.
“It’s quite tragic,” she said. “I think we’ve lost something we’ll never get back.”
Mark Landler and Etienne castle brought back from London, and Megan Specia of Leigh-on-Sea, England.