Within minutes of the first reports of the Brussels attacks hitting the internet the Twittersphere reacted – with grief at the reported casualties, speculation about the extent of the carnage and, sadly but predictably, political point scoring. While world leaders expressed shock and called for calm, some people thought this would be a good time to help promote their political causes in a shocking display of carelessness and a toxic mix of insensitivity and self-righteousness.
Quick off the mark was Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, who tweeted at 7.45am – only about 20 minutes after news of the attacks had first started to emerge and before news of the attack on the Metro line had been reported – calling Brussels “the jihadist capital of Europe” and mocking what she called “Remainers”.
Pearson was not alone and her tweet was merely the first of many as others leaped at the chance to exploit a still unfolding painful tragedy for partisan political gain.
The UK prime minister, David Cameron, and other party leaders sent messages of support to the people of Brussels. Meanwhile UKIP leader Nigel Farage retweeted Pearson’s message on Twitter, noting his fears for the future just in case someone had the mistaken impression he could act like a statesman.
And, finally, no such moment could be overlooked by the Daily Mail’s columnist Katie Hopkins, who thought now was the time to blame the dead and injured for an unprovoked terrorist attack in a more chilling act of nonsensical chutzpah.
It’s easy to mock America’s pro-gun lobby for its mantra that: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” – maybe someone should remind Hopkins that innocent people don’t cause terrorist atrocities, terrorists cause terror. It should be an easy point to grasp, but it appears to have evaded her.
The EU referendum is a very big deal – a once in a generation vote about Britain’s place in Europe, arguably the biggest single issue affecting the British people. As such it causes passions to run high on each side. It’s also an argument that cuts across traditional party lines.
But there is a time and a place for this debate – and most people would consider it morally bankrupt to try to exploit a tragedy such as this even while the body count was still going on. Nor is it appropriate to use such a human tragedy to satisfy personal, political ambitions.
No doubt Brexit campaigners such as Pearson, Farage, Hopkins and the rest will hope that their tweets will have resonated with some people. And make no mistake that there will be some that share their views about Brexit and the EU referendum. But these messages will not influence the way most people think. Such crass “dog whistling” is seen by most people for the political opportunism that it is.
For many people, these tweets are an irresistible – and regrettable – reminder of what can happen when cynicism trumps good sense, something famously seen in 2001 when a spin doctor sent out a message to her department in the wake of the 9/11 attack in New York that: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” There was more than a flavour of this in the Brussels tweets. Lessons have not been learned by all.
Fair-minded people who remain undecided on whether to support the UK’s continued EU membership may share concerns about security in light of events like today, but Brexit campaigners must keep in mind that it’s not just the message that wins, but the messenger. If the public views supporters of one side as political opportunists willing to exploit and twist any tragedy to suit their political ambitions, it will more effectively repel voters than win them over. There remains plenty of time left to draw conclusions about Britain’s place in Europe. But let’s first let the dust settle on this tragedy in Brussels and gather the facts so we can make an informed decision in our collective national interest.
Brexit campaigners have made a big deal out of the way the prime minister is using what they call “Project Fear” to scare people into voting their way. Judging from the Twittersphere, the Brussels attacks have made a lot of them hypocrites.