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Jo Cox and the apportioning of blame

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Following the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP her husband said: "she would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love."

Responding to the news of Jo Cox's murder Tim Dieppe discusses the preciousness of free speech and also notes the clear differences between the crime of Thomas Mair and that of Omar Marteen in Orlando.


The reports of the horrific murder of Jo Cox yesterday left everyone shocked and saddened. She was by all accounts a dedicated mother, a talented politician, and a passionate humanitarian who deeply impressed all who knew her. Her life has been tragically cut short and our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends as they grieve and mourn their deep loss. Moving tributes have appeared from family, friends and politicians. The nation is in shock and mourning.

I worry that we may be moving to a society where those brave enough to speak out in public will need some protection, but I hope I am wrong. Jo Cox had previously contacted the police about threats she had received which may not be related to her murder. The police were reportedly planning to upgrade her security. No politician should have to fear for his or her safety.

Free speech is such a precious value that we need to preserve. People should be free to say whatever they think, providing that they do not incite violence, without being concerned about harmful reactions. Free speech inevitably means freedom to disagree and freedom to offend. We must defend the right to say things that others may not like and promote the rights of others to offend us too. Without free speech democracy cannot function, nor can an open society.

It is now known that suspect Thomas Mair had a history of mental health problems and had never had any full-time employment.  Our increasingly fractured society is seeing rising levels of mental health issues and struggling to care well for them. We also read that he subscribed to a racist magazine, and witnesses have reported that he said “Britain First” during the attack. The right-wing group Britain First has denounced the attack and said that he was not a member of the group. No doubt we will learn more about Thomas Mair’s motivations in due course. Perhaps his actions say more about how our society treats and cares for people with mental issues than anything else. He clearly needs help and support. Our prayers are for him too.

It may be a little too comforting to write off Thomas Mair as someone with mental health issues. It can make it too easy to distance ourselves from the crime and absolve him of responsibility. It also risks promoting harmful prejudices against all those who suffer from some kind of mental illness. Whenever someone commits an atrocity people are quick to jump to the mental health explanation. Perhaps too quick.

Omar Mateen, who killed 50 people in Orlando last weekend, clearly wasn’t a person in perfect mental health. He did not have a history of mental illness though. He held a responsible full-time job and was married. He swore allegiance to the Islamic State when carrying out his attack for the Islamic State, and the Islamic State subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack and described him as “an Islamic State fighter.” Islamic State does expressly and openly incite violence, and is pleased to endorse Mateen’s violent act. Mateen was therefore, in a meaningful way, motivated by Islamic State teaching. We do ourselves a disservice by seeking to avoid this conclusion.

There is therefore a clear difference between the crime of Thomas Mair, who has a history of mental illness and whose actions have been denounced by the group he may have wished to support, and the crime of Omar Mateen who had no history of mental illness and whose actions are welcomed by the group he identified himself with. They should not be seen as equivalent.

Jo Cox's murder comes at a crucial time with less than a week to go before the EU referendum. It is well known that she was campaigning for remain. The debate has been heated, passionate, and not always helpful. Both sides have been accused of manipulating statistics and stretching their arguments. Brexit campaigners, whatever their faults, have not been calling for violence in their rhetoric. They should not be blamed for this attack. Both sides could have campaigned less aggressively, with fewer personal insults involved in the debates. I hope and pray that we will now see a more mature tone of campaigning in the final days before the vote.

Related Links: 
Britain First: Who are the far-right group whose name was 'shouted by Jo Cox gunman'? (Telegraph)
Jo Cox's dying words revealed as 'no, my pain is too much' as Parliament to be recalled after Labour MP killed in 'attack on democracy' (Telegraph)
Thomas Mair: Man arrested in connection with Jo Cox attack was a 'loner' with 'history of mental health problems' (Telegraph)
Suspected Orlando shooter called 911, swore allegiance to Islamic State: NBC (Reuters)
Islamic State claims responsibility for Orlando nightclub shooting (Reuters)
Mental Health Statistics (Young Minds)