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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a service of remembrance for British MP David Amess at St Margaret's Church in Westminster in London on Oct. 18, 2021.Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press

Violence and the threat of violence against politicians is undermining democracy.

On Friday, British Conservative MP David Amess was fatally attacked while meeting with constituents. This was not the first incident of its kind. Five years earlier, Labour MP Jo Cox was killed under similar circumstances.

In the United States, protesters stormed Congress on Jan. 6, seeking to disrupt ratification of the presidential election. One protester was shot and killed.

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Canada’s worst political violence in recent memory came in 2014, when a gunman, after killing a soldier at the Cenotaph, attempted to storm Parliament Hill, wounding a security guard before being shot and killed himself.

Violence during the Canadian election was mild by comparison, but unusual for this country. Protesters mobbed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and pelted him with gravel. The RCMP reported an increase in security threats to politicians compared to previous campaigns.

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What’s happening? I agree with former Conservative minister James Moore, who points to the decline of mediating forces in society such as religious faith, local community groups and other social adhesives.

In the absence of such supports, for many people, “their sense of identity, their sense of purpose, their sense of justice, their religiosity, their livelihood is getting dumped into politics,” he told me. “And politics can’t handle the weight of that.”

The arrival of social media amplified that polarization, creating a new but false sense of community: Other people online who echo your beliefs and amplify your voice, while drowning out any voices of reason and compromise.

”There are more people able to express their views, but there are fewer viewpoints,” said James Turk, Director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. The pandemic kicked all this up several notches.

The result can be vile, especially for women and minorities in public life. During the last election campaign, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner spoke of people accosting her on the street and in a restaurant, shouting conspiracy theories and yelling threats.

“I can’t advertise the location of my campaign office,” she wrote in a statement at the time. “I can’t attend public events where my attendance has been advertised. I’ve had to enhance security measures. I’m on edge and feel fear when I’m getting in and out of my car, and out in public in general.”

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In the short term, according to former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, security forces will need to conduct new threat assessments. “They may advise MPs not to do certain events,” she said. Politicians meeting constituents without security may become a thing of the past. We also need to better understand the connection between extremism and mental illness, and improve treatments.

Social media may require increased regulation. During her years as a Liberal cabinet minister, Catherine McKenna endured attacks on her campaign office, people berating staff in her constituency office, incidents at her home and, of course, the daily barrage of obscenities on various online platforms. She lays part of the blame at the feet of social media companies, who profit from the abusive activities they claim to discourage.

“They clearly have no incentive to do the right thing, so unfortunately, that’s where governments step in,” she said. It’s not just about protecting politicians and their staff, she added. “It’s about our democracy itself.”

Mr. Turk agrees that asking social media to self-regulate political speech is like asking a fox to self-regulate inside a hen house. But pushing too hard to limit abusive speech risks undermining freedom of expression.

“It’s a formidable problem, and no one has the answer,” he said.

The only lasting solution is reconciliation between left and right, different faiths, majority and minority ethnic groups, and other communities that lack the ability to find common ground. This can be done. Protestants and Catholics, Irish and English fought for decades over Northern Ireland. Thousands were killed, including a number of British politicians. But violence waned after both sides settled the worst of their differences through the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Reconciliation takes years. It requires all of us to listen more and demand less. And it means electing political leaders of a very high calibre – the kind who may be kept away from politics today because they don’t want the misery and personal risk.

That’s the vicious cycle that nations must make virtuous, or risk losing their democracies.

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