Last week, on a grey-looking street with a little cafe and a dry cleaning shop, in a town that could pass for almost anywhere in the north of England, a British member of parliament was gunned down on the pavement.
Jo Cox, the 41-year-old MP for West Yorkshire’s Batley and Spen constituency, died after she was attacked outside a library where she was about to meet her constituents.
A 52-year-old local man, named as Thomas Mair, purportedly shouted “Britain first!” (The name of a far-right British nationalist movement formed in 2011 by former members of the British National Party) before repeatedly shooting and stabbing Cox, according to several eyewitnesses. Mair was arrested and Cox died of her injuries shortly afterwards.
The first profiles of Mair described him as “timid,” a “quiet and caring loner” with a “history of mental illness” and a penchant for volunteer work and gardening. He was depicted as a lone white shooter, suffering from alienation amid political turmoil. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who killed 69 boys and girls in a highly calculated, ideologically motivated attack on a leftist youth camp in 2011, was also described as “not sane” until psychologists declared otherwise.
Several, predominantly right wing, commentators have tried to depoliticize Cox’s death, accusing “dull, predictable left-liberal columnists” of trying to capitalize on it. But it is possible to view this act within its political context and to also acknowledge that Mair may be socially isolated, unwell and committed an act of terror. It should prompt us to ask questions of ourselves and our societies, about how we do politics.
Cox’s husband Brendan said on Tuesday that he believed she was killed because of her political views. There has been some mention of Mair’s links with far-right groups, including the US National Alliance and British National Party, or he may have been influenced or inspired by Britain First, who recently called for “direct action” against elected Muslim officials following the election of Sadiq Khan as London mayor last month. When asked to give his name in court on Saturday, Mair answered, “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
It shouldn’t be discounted that Cox’s murder happened during one of the most toxic periods in British politics in memory, largely because of the Brexit vote: the in-out referendum vote that will decide the UK’s future in the European Union on Thursday June 23. Both sides, Leave and Remain, have been criticized for using bogus statistics and leaving voters with significant misperceptions about the EU and key issues such as immigration and the economy.
It’s been poisonous. I’ve been shocked and depressed by the level of political debate; the sordid little insinuations about people because of where they come from, what they do or how they look; or the way politicians and newspapers have used refugees and asylum seekers, economic migrants or just any “foreigner” to score political capital. Migrants are causing the housing crisis, we’re told. Refugees are coming in their swarms, we’re warned.
Last week, Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-Europe United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), unveiled a new campaign poster showing a blown-up photograph of refugees and migrants crossing the Balkan countryside last year. “BREAKING POINT,” it screamed, “The EU has failed us all.” Just in case the message wasn’t clear enough, a caption below read: “We must break free of the EU and take back control.”
Take back control. Our country. Us. Them.
This isn’t just the language of dyed-in-the-wool fascists or lone men with guns, such sentiments are along similar lines to those broadcast by UK cabinet ministers of all political persuasions, mainstream newspaper headlines and endless, droll conversations in streets, pubs and homes up and down the country. I won’t be the first to say that the UK, and Europe, has become palpably more xenophobic, cruel and small-minded. You actually feel it.
This is the opposite of the Britain, and world, that Cox and many others have been fighting for. Although obituaries usually deal in exaggeration and platitudes, Cox was genuinely a rare force for good in British politics.
She began her career in humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam and anti-slavery charity the Freedom Fund, and was a more relatable, familiar figure in the House of Commons than most. She’d grown up in the constituency she represented. She was a relatively new member of parliament (elected last year), who made eloquent, principled speeches about foreign policy and food banks. She was an internationalist who doggedly represented the voices of refugees in parliament and co-founded an all-party parliamentary group on Syria, which routinely gave space for Syrian voices in the halls and corridors of parliament and advocated for a realist but infinitely more humanitarian approach to the conflict and its victims. She resisted the British government’s attempts to shut down the Palestinian Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Agree or disagree with these positions, Cox was consistent.
In an essay shortly before her death, Cox wrote that the international community’s “inept response” in Syria “has overseen the first widescale use of chemical weapons in a generation, the spawning of the cancer that is ISIS and the greatest refugee crisis Europe has seen since the second world war.” She called for more support for refugees in the Middle East, as well as those who migrate to Europe. She called for a “no bombing zone” — a long-time demand of Syrian activists both inside and outside the country. She called on Labour MPs to set aside the party’s shameful past, the invasion and occupation of Iraq under former leader Tony Blair, ultimately “so that the protection of Syrian civilians will get the attention it deserves.”
Syria has been abandoned, left to be what it has become. As a Syrian-Kurdish friend recently put it while discussing the big names in the Syrian opposition in Europe, “There are a thousand Nelson Mandelas still inside Syria who we know nothing about.”
I believe Cox felt something of that sentiment. She believed something needs to be done for Syrians who have been abandoned by the international community and detained, tortured, bombed and gassed to death for five ugly years by Bashar al-Assad and the so-called resistance that so many of her colleagues still, brazenly, support.
Jo Cox would have been 42 today. May she rest in peace.