When Angry Political Rhetoric Turns Into Murder
Policy + Politics

When Angry Political Rhetoric Turns Into Murder


In the midst of a bitter political campaign that has featured increasingly apocalyptic warnings about the impact that immigrants -- particularly Muslim immigrants -- are having on society, a supporter of one of the most virulently nationalistic movements took matters into his own hands yesterday. He identified a politician on the opposite side of the argument -- an advocate for allowing Syrian refugees into the country -- and murdered her.

Reportedly shouting a name associated with the most anti-immigrant voice in the country, he brutally shot, stabbed and kicked the 41-year-old lawmaker in broad daylight, outside a library where she had been meeting with constituents, leaving her to bleed to death on the pavement.

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The murder of Jo Cox, the 41-year-old mother of two and member of the British Parliament, stunned a nation that is far less used to random acts of gun violence than we are in the United States. Her assailant, a 52-year-old man identified by the British Press as Tommy Mair, reportedly shouted “Britain first!” during the attack -- the name of a political movement in the country that is bitterly opposed to Muslims and to immigration in general.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in the U.S. reported that Mair had known connections to U.S.- and South Africa-based white supremacist movements. There have also been reports in the British media, including comments from Mair’s family, suggesting that he has suffered mental problems.

Britain, which will vote next week in a referendum that will determine whether or not the country remains a part of the European Union, has been torn by a campaign featuring unprecedented demonization of immigrants. Before the attack, the nationalist UK Independence Party and its leader, Nigel Farage, unveiled a widely criticized advertisement warning of hordes of immigrants invading the country, accompanied by a photo of a long line of Middle-Eastern looking refugees.

Writing about the attack for the Spectator yesterday, Alex Massie calls Thursday a “day of infamy” for Britain. But the central point of his article is one that ought to resonate here in the United States.

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“When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks,” Massie writes. “When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

“Sometimes rhetoric has consequences,” he continues. “If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat; that their country has been stolen from them; that they have been betrayed and sold down the river; that their birthright has been pilfered; that their problem is they’re too slow to realize any of this is happening; that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell -- then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.”

If Massies’s assessment of his own country’s tortured politics doesn’t sound painfully familiar to an American, well, then you’re not paying attention.

The biggest figure on the US political stage right now is fresh off the delivery of a bitter speech, given in the wake of a mass shooting in Orlando by a killer claiming support for the terror group ISIS. He once again called for a ban on Muslim immigrants coming into the country, warning that unless we follow his lead, “we won’t have a country left.” He warned in a nationally televised interview about a supposed fifth column of Muslims in the US already made up of “thousands of shooters” who, he said, are being actively sheltered by U.S. Muslims.

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But Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is different only in degree, not in kind, from what other politicians regularly dish out. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who finished second to Trump in the Republican presidential primary, has made a career out of warning Americans that their country has been stolen from them and that they need to “take back” control of the United States.

Figures in the media -- Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck -- spend their days filling the airwaves with dire warnings about the various existential threats facing the United States. These are frequently tied explicitly to a scary set of “other” people, be they immigrants or members of racial, religious, or other minorities.

The murder of Jo Cox by a disturbed man living in an environment in which he was subjected to ceaseless warnings that his country and way of life were under siege was shocking, but it would be disingenuous to claim that it was surprising given the level of rhetoric in the UK right now.

What’s actually surprising? The fact that it didn’t happen here, first.