How did you feel when you heard that a mother of two young children had been murdered by a gunman? I have no idea, as I write these words, whether you, the reader, are male or female, black or white, Left- or Right-leaning. But I reckon I’m on pretty safe ground in guessing your reaction to the news of Jo Cox’s death.
Uncomplicated revulsion and unrestrained sympathy, right? If you have children of your own, you’ll have hugged them a little tighter that night. If you’re an elected politician who meets constituents regularly – trust me on this – you’ll have been unable to get the abomination out of your head for weeks.
We can try to enter into the mind of the killer, Thomas Mair, but our thoughts skim off its surface. It’s clear enough what we’re dealing with here: a deranged man to whom normal rules of behaviour don’t apply.
Such men exist in all ages and in all nations. Some go on random shooting sprees: Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold. Some try to dignify their violence with rambling and narcissistic statements of “policy”: Anders Behring Breivik, Seung-Hui Cho. Some get involved with Islamist terror groups: Michael Adebolajo, Mohammed Emwazi.
Although their causes are disparate, their profiles are similar: anti-social, aggressive, vain, narcissistic – often in the clinical sense, many of them having had continuing mental health issues. In a previous generation, they might have got involved with, say, the Red Brigades or the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
Although their psychologies are similar, we don’t treat them similarly. The people who now (correctly) say that Thomas Mair was a sick and troubled individual often link Islamist terror to the entire Muslim population. Conversely, the people who (correctly) argue that jihadi murderers are violent criminals often claim that there is some sort of continuum linking mainstream conservatives to Mair.
Consider, for example, two recent racial murders in the United States. Dylann Roof was a 22-year-old white man who went into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, was made welcome at a bible study class, said he was taken aback by now nice everyone was, and then calmly stood up and shot nine black people dead. Micah Johnson was a black veteran from Afghanistan, whom fellow soldiers remember as quietly religious. In July, he said that he “wanted to kill white people” and gunned down five police officers in Dallas.
Was Dylann Roof’s crime provoked by Confederate flags? Of course not. Was Micah Johnson’s provoked by Black Lives Matter? Again, of course not. But how many people will sign up with equal enthusiasm to both those statements?
One pundit who is at least consistent is David Aaronovitch. In his Times column this morning, headlined “Dog-whistle politics can be a deadly game”, he suggested that Leave campaigners were indirectly responsible for Jo Cox’s death. He has also argued that mainstream Muslims are indirectly responsible for jihadi terrorism.
To see why both contentions are wrong, try extending his logic. All black people are responsible for Micah Johnson. All white people are responsible for Dylann Roof. All Leftists are responsible for Marinus van der Lubbe, the young Dutchman who started the Reichstag fire in 1933. You see where these generalisations lead?
In fact, sentient adults are responsible for their own actions. That principle is the basis, not just of our criminal justice system, but of the morality of every monotheistic religion. When journalists start demanding that people “disown” or “condemn” the actions of a third party, they blur that fundamental precept.
The elevation of the individual over the collective is the basis of Western civilisation. The story of human progress is the story of how we came to be treated as autonomous citizens, rather than having our status defined by birth, caste or tradition.
In thinking of Jo Cox’s murder, we can celebrate a popular and generous MP, in politics for all the right reasons. If we believe in prayer, we can pray for her family. We can make a contribution to the foundation established in her name. We can reflect on the preciousness of life, and resolve to use our time more positively. Sometimes, there are no wider lessons. Sometimes, there is nothing more to do.