The tragedy of yesterday’s news about the cold blooded killing of British MP Jo Cox is difficult to put into words. The images and words posted by her husband Brendan in the hours following her death, along with the sincere sense of shock portrayed by colleagues at Westminster, give some sense of the dreadful loss that has been sustained, as well as the moral incongruity of an MP engaged in public service being callously murdered by a member of her constituency . One feels that this is a moment in our national life which will linger long in public memory, and leave an aching void in the lives of those who knew Jo Cox best.
Along with the tragic tones of this atrocity have come notes and strains from the media which demand more scrutiny. Within a short time of the murder the British press were reporting ‘eyewitness’ accounts of people who claimed that Jo Cox’s alleged murderer shouted ‘Britain First’ whilst committing his crime. Coming after a weekend where the world reeled at events in Orlando, the idea of a politicised or ideology-driven murder strikes a chord in the hearts of many, pointing again to the very real dangers of people swallowing wholesale the radical ideas of others propagated via new media. This twist seemed to lend the story an edge in last night’s news coverage, suggesting a bigger picture behind the seemingly mindless killing.
But one has to question how helpful all of this is. The case of Omar Mateen in Orlando has surely highlighted the difficulty attached to attributing larger political motives to what may be individually motivated atrocities. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in the Pulse nightclub ISIL was quickly evoked, but this was made more complex by revelations that Mateen himself may have frequented the club as a patron in the past. How can we find an effective label for someone who has sympathies with radical Islam, but who is harbouring feelings which run contrary to the whole belief system which he has espoused?
Perhaps the answer is that these easy labels don’t always work. There can be a complexity of issues which motivate an individual to engage in acts of terror or murder, some of which may not even be understood by the assailant themselves. Our world of hashtags doesn’t really work when we are handling a criminal act of such severity and gravity as the taking of another’s life. Instant explanation can easily become mitigation, making an act which should burst our categories and break our hearts understandable within a bigger matrix.
Instant explanation can easily become mitigation, making an act which should burst our categories and break our hearts understandable within a bigger matrix.
Sometimes people kill for mindless reasons, sometimes they commit attacks for political motives, sometimes their illnesses have gone unchecked or untreated to their own detriment and that of society, and sometimes we are face to face with undiluted evil – with the unmasked image of the human soul in its depravity and sin. In any case, immediately positing probable cause, or placing a banner or a flag in the bloodied hands of those who cruelly take human life, does little to help our understanding of human nature, or the depth of our brokenness as people. What we need is not a hashtag or handle to pigeon-hole our public tragedies, but open hearts to weep with those who weep, patience with police while they thoroughly investigate the individual and their motives, and a clear eyed view of what we are capable of as human beings.