The brutal murder of Jo Cox has added a seemingly random note of tragedy and horror to this appalling, dispiriting and utterly venal Referendum campaign. And the brave and dignified words of Cox’s husband and sister have only shown us how low we have allowed ourselves to sink during this wretched process.
Anti-intellectualism; complete disregard for evidence; hyperbolic denunciations of the EU coupled with an almost nihilistic indifference to the consequences of leaving; lies, prejudice; whining ‘ We want our country back narratives’ of national victimhood; the most rancid xenophobia, fear and racism – all these tendencies that were once considered un-British have become part of the poisonous and bitter debate that our feckless politicians have foisted upon us.
Now a promising young politician and the mother of two children had been murdered by a man who gave his name in court as ‘ death to traitors – freedom for Britain.’ No one can be surprised that the media and many politicians and political parties have focused on Thomas Mair’s abnormal personality rather than his politics. We have heard, ad infinitum, that he was ‘mentally ill’ and ‘ a loner’ – as if ‘loners’ are somehow naturally inclined to kill MPs.
Of course this is what always happens when a white man carries out an act of political murder. We don’t like to call them terrorists, because words like terrorist and terrorism are intended to construct and convey an image of politically-motivated violence as something utterly alien to us.
This otherness might stem from religion, from ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalization’. We might imagine that it has something to do with race, culture or ideology or a combination of all these factors. But what is always clear is that the terrorist has nothing in common with us and we cannot recognize anything of ourselves in their actions. Even when the crimes of the terrorists are ‘rational’, in the sense that they may have a political motivation or particular strategic or tactical aims, we like to imagine them as crimes aimed at ‘our way of life’, ‘our values’ or ‘our freedoms.’
The anathema heaped on the terrorist also helps create an imagined ‘us’. It binds the state, government and population into a first person plural based on the assumption of our common decency, even as the Otherness of the terrorist enables us to torture, extradite and imprison ‘enemy combatants’, wage wars ‘to keep us safe’, or pore over Muslim toddlers in search of signs of incipient radicalization..
This is what terrorism discourse does, and this is what it’s intended to achieve. But faced with men like Thomas Mair, Anders Breivik or Timothy McVeigh, we instinctively seek explanations in psychopathology, because we can’t believe that men who appear to be ‘like us’ can kill with the same merciless cruelty as people we know aren’t ‘like us.’
We can’t comprehend that an all-American boy and a Gulf War ‘hero’ like McVeigh would regard children that he kills in a kindergarden as ‘collateral damage.’ Or why Anders Breivik would gleefully massacre teenagers for political reasons. We can’t imagine why a ‘quiet’ and ‘timid’ man like Mair would shoot a female politician and the mother of two children – unless we assume that he’s mad.
Mair may well have had mental health issues, but then so did Michael Adebowale, the killer of Lee Rigby and the fact that Adebowale was a borderline schizophrenic did not receive nearly the same level of scrutiny as Mair’s psychological condition. Mental illness covers a very wide spectrum of conditions, and however ill Mair was, he was also a fascist and a white supremacist, who was associated with an organization, Britain First, that has advocated the execution of ‘traitors’ guilty of ‘crimes against the country.’ He chose his target – an MP with a track record of defending the EU and refugees – for clearly political reasons.
So the killing of Jo Cox was an act of political murder, and responsibility for it – as far as we know – belongs entirely to Mair, but that doesn’t mean that his crime took place in a vacuum. It took place during the extraordinarily febrile atmosphere of the referendum, when the nation is positively seething with fear and hatred towards the EU, towards foreigners, and towards refugees.
At its most extreme manifestation, this hatred emanates from the fascist and Nazi troglodytes on Twitter, who celebrated the death of a woman they called a ‘traitorous whore’ and many other things. Naturally Cox has to be a ‘whore’, because any politically-active woman will always be called such things by these Internet warriors.
It would be comforting to think that such hatred stops there, somewhere on the lunatic fringe where decent people would never tread. But let’s not deceive ourselves. In the wake of the murder there has been a lot of cuddly talk about how politicians should be kinder and more respectful to each other, but there has been a lot less said about the very unkind and disrespectful way in which politicians and the media treat the immigrants and foreigners who Jo Cox supported and publicly associated herself.
However ‘mad’ Mair may have been, that’s why he called her a traitor and that’s why he killed her, and the fear and hatred that made such an atrocious act possible extends far beyond the denizens of the fascist netherworld in their blood and honour t-shirts and their violent ‘self-defence’ knife classes in the Welsh hills.
You can find it emanating in more subtle and insidious ways from the political mainstream, whether from politicians or from the newspapers that millions read every day, that spew out anii-immigrant and anti-refugee propaganda on an almost daily basis. More than anyone else, it emanates from the Brexiters, and in the last two weeks these sentiments have reached a horrifying crescendo.
Recognizing that it was losing the economic arguments, the Leave campaign stepped up its anti-immigrant rhetoric within the last two weeks. To them, ‘take back control’ meant taking control of our ‘broken’ borders. We learned that refugees were rapists who endangered the security of British women. We heard that 76 million Turks will soon be joining the EU. In the same week that Jo Cox was shot, Nigel Farage stood in front of a Nazi-like poster depicting an invading army of refugees – refugees he insisted were not ‘genuine.’
Farage also warned of ‘violence on the streets‘ if immigration is not controlled. Please don’t ask me to be kind and respectful to a politician who talks like that. But instead of damaging the Leave campaign, arguments like this boosted its standing in the polls and gave it new momentum. In effect, a large swathe of the public made it clear that it accepted and shared Farage’s views – or at the very least was not bothered by them.
That’s bad enough, but it is even more disturbing to consider that many of our fellow-citizens also share Mair’s fear and loathing of the foreign ‘invasion’ – even if they are horrified that someone would take such prejudices so far as to actually murder a politician.
But even though no one could have predicted such a thing could happen, it doesn’t seem entirely surprising now that it has. Because we have allowed the likes of Farage to turn us into a morally shrunken nation from which the kind of courage and decency that Jo Cox demonstrated in her short career is becoming increasingly absent from our public life.
We have allowed ourselves to become fearful and hateful. And we might not like to admit it, but both Farage and the ‘timid gardener’ Thomas Mair are symptoms of that transformation.
It’s not too late – yet – to become something else. But we really ought to start soon.