Political Figures Face Increasing Threats in the West

Political Figures Face Increasing Threats in the West

Political figures, particularly those that gain the public eye, are no stranger to threats and intimidation. Recently, however, there has been an unusual uptick in threats against politicians in general, causing increasing concern for their safety in democracies around the world. This trend has been seen in both the US and UK, despite stark differences in the structure of each democracy. In the US, these threats mainly revolve around domestic political rivalries, controversial legislation / executive policy, and Supreme Court decisions. In the UK, much of the recent fear stems from protestors’ strong feelings about the Israel-Hamas War. 

In both countries, however, fearful politicians and lawmakers have warned against the dangers of “mob rule” and are ramping up security budgets. But are these protective measures enough? When emotions are running high, it is hard to say. 

US Supreme Court Seeks to Bolster Its Security

Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court requested nearly $20 million from the federal government to improve the security of justices, including defenses around their homes. The request stipulated that the Supreme Court Police be given more power and funding to protect the justices, as opposed to the US Marshals Service that traditionally guards them. 

Further, the Biden Administration is after a more comprehensive protective web for justices. The White House recently proposed an additional $38 million in funding to go toward the protection of federal judges, including Supreme Court justices. The proposal allocates $28 million toward the US Marshals Service, while the remaining $10 million would fund a newly created grant program for state and local governments to protect active and retired federal judges living in their jurisdictions. 

According to the US Marshals Service, serious threats against federal judges rose from 224 in the fiscal year of 2021 to 457 in the fiscal year of 2023. Specifically, judges and prosecutors who have been handling cases related to Donald Trump and the Capitol riots have been facing a spike in intimidation and death threats. Threats against judges also surged following the release of a draft of a Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe. v. Wade

Investigated threats against members of Congress have been steadily rising for the past five years (except for 2021, which hit a high due to the Capitol riots). In 2022, US Capitol Police investigated 7,501 threats against lawmakers, while in 2023 they investigated 8,008 cases. 

US Marshals Service Director Ronald Davis has warned that the increasing threats against judges and lawmakers “constitutes a substantial risk to our democracy.” The Biden Administration’s massive funding initiative is just the latest measure to attempt to thwart this trend.

MPs in the UK Fear for Their Lives

In England, MPs have said the Israel-Hamas War has created a politically charged atmosphere that has caused an increase in abuse and threats. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has responded by seeking a £31 million package aimed at protecting MPs. The PM also requested stronger and immediate police responses in the wake of a “growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule.” 

These concerns have been building after a series of large protests, violent incidents, and increasingly polarized rhetoric in the past six months. In February, pro-Palestinian protestors targeted conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who responded publicly to backlash against him, stating that the “bar of acceptable treatment” of MPs was decreasing. 

Additionally, Justice Minister Mike Freer announced that he will not be running in the next election due to security fears. He claimed that the extra funding for MP security is not sufficient, as it does not address the root cause of heightened MP attacks. To the contrary, he asserts that such intensive security measures as placing “a ring of steel around MPs” will change democracy as we know it. 

Concerns for the safety of MPs in the UK are playing out alongside competing arguments from aid organizations and nonprofits. Among others, Amnesty International activists warn against the erosion of fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. 

Where to Draw the Line Between Safety and Individual Rights?

This trend is not exclusive to the US and UK.  France, Italy, Canada, and New Zealand are some of the countries that have likewise reported an increase in the targeting of political figures. The expansion of these threats is a concerning signal of democratic erosion, meaning each nation – and perhaps a coalition of nations – will need to address directly the regulations and institutions within their countries which appear unstable.

In democracies, the line between government protection and freedom to protest is always being pushed and pulled, depending on the zeitgeist of the times. The concern on both sides is that if the line is pushed too far one way, there will be no going back. While politicians must protect themselves, it’s imperative not to undermine fundamental individual rights. The challenge lies in finding a solution that ensures the security of public figures without encroaching on democratic principles.