In the aftermath of the tragic murder of British Labour MP Jo Cox, the most poignant - and debated - question that has emerged is whether the shooter, 52-year-old white male Thomas Mair, was motivated by political ideology especially since as some eyewitness have claimed he shouted "Britain First" during his deadly attack and is now being probed for "far-right links", or if he was simply mentally ill.
The reason is simple: just like in the aftermath of the mass Orlando shooting, both Brexit camps are trying to score political points by presenting the lone shooter as indicative of the ideology they are trying to protect the UK from.
As we reported earlier, none other than Angela Merkel promptly tried to portray the event as an example of "radicalization", suggesting that the murder was ideologically provoked: She said that the “total exaggeration and radicalization of the debate doesn’t contribute to facilitating such respect. So for all of us who value democratic rules, we know how important it is to establish boundaries in one’s choice of language and argument as well as the choice in a sometimes disparaging way of arguing -- and to engage with respect those who think and believe and love differently... Otherwise it will be difficult to stop radicalization."
And while the question of radicalization is certainly relevant, is it fair or event ethical, to bring it up in the aftermath of Cox' murder if the shooter had no rational, ideological motive and was simply insane? The answer will likely never be revealed as every side will use whatever narrative suits it, we do know some facts.
As the Guardian reported overnight, the picture that emerged of the man known as Tom or Tommy from those who knew him best was of a quiet and caring loner. His half brother, who is mixed race, claimed he had been volunteering at a school for children with disabilities for several years and had never expressed any racist views. Duane St Louis, 41, described his brother as a devoted son who shopped for their mother twice a week and who had visited her on Wednesday night to help tune her TV.
St Louis insisted his brother had never expressed any racist views and seemed fine to have a mixed-race sibling. Asked whether he had any strong political views, St Louis said: “Not that I know of.” He said he had no idea how Mair had got hold of a gun and did not have any hobbies that would require a firearms licence.
Mair grew up not with his mother, Mary, but his maternal grandmother, Helen, who died in 1996. The pair lived in a semi-detached house on the Fieldhead estate in Birstall, 15 minutes walk up the hill from where Cox was killed. St Louis said his brother lived alone after their grandmother’s death and had never married or had children. He had not had a girlfriend for years. “He had one girlfriend when he was younger but his mate took her off him and he said he didn’t want another one,” said St Louis.
Despite Mair living in the same house for at least 40 years, his neighbours told the Guardian they knew little about him. They said he was quiet and polite, volunteering to do their gardens and offering horticultural tips as he passed down Lowood Lane on his regular strolls into Birstall to use the computers at the library.
So far the profile is that of an unremarkable, caring man. Alas, there is more.
As we first reported yesterday, and as the Guardian confirms, it is believed he had mental health problems and was quoted as praising a particular passage of care he had undertaken in the past.
In 2011, he was photographed by the local paper volunteering in nearby Oakwell Hall country park. The previous year he was quoted in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, saying he had begun volunteering after attending Pathways Day Centre for adults with mental health problems.
“I can honestly say it has done me more good than all the psychotherapy and medication in the world,” he said. “Many people who suffer from mental illness are socially isolated and disconnected from society, feelings of worthlessness are also common, mainly caused by long-term unemployment. “All these problems are alleviated by doing voluntary work. Getting out of the house and meeting new people is a good thing, but more important in my view is doing physically demanding and useful labour.
"When you have finished there is a feeling of achievement which is emotionally rewarding and psychologically fulfilling. For people for whom full-time, paid employment is not possible for a variety of reasons, voluntary work offers a socially positive and therapeutic alternative.”
And then the key punchline which most media have so far largely ignored: "The men have another brother, Scott Mair 49, who told reporters he had wept when he heard about the killing. He said: “I am struggling to believe what has happened. My brother is not violent and is not all that political. I don’t even know who he votes for. He has a history of mental illness, but he has had help.”
It appears not enough help.
To be sure, mentally unstable or not, there are reports that Muir did express a right-wing ideology and may have been an outright "terrorist" as the WaPo dubs him. As the Atlantic reports, citing an unconfirmed report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Mair was a longtime supporter of the National Alliance, a U.S.-based neo-Nazi group. Here’s more from the SPLC:
Mair purchased a manual from the NA in 1999 that included instructions on how to build a pistol.
Mair, who resides in what is described as a semi-detached house on the Fieldhead Estate in Birstall, sent just over $620 to the NA, according to invoices for goods purchased from National Vanguard Books, the NA’s printing imprint. Mair purchased subscriptions for periodicals published by the imprint and he bought works that instruct readers on the “Chemistry of Powder & Explosives,” “Incendiaries,” and a work called “Improvised Munitions Handbook." Under “Section III, No. 9” (page 125) of that handbook, there are detailed instructions for constructing a “Pipe Pistol For .38 Caliber Ammunition” from components that can be purchased from nearly any hardware store.
Guardian also notes, that Mair's name appears on an extremist website. It describes him as “one of the earliest subscribers and supporters of” a certain extremist publication which is alleged to be linked to white supremacy.
Then there are the reports of him shouting "Britain First." Graeme Howard, 38, who lives in nearby Bond Street, said: “He was shouting ‘Britain first’ when he was doing it and being arrested.” Another witness, Clarke Rothwell, told the Huddersfield Daily Examiner: “He was shouting what sounded like ‘Britain first, Britain first’ but then seemed to panic and hurried off. He seemed scared and hurried off towards Union Street, dumping a jacket on the floor. I got into my van and tried to follow him but I lost him.”
But even this may be incomplete. As Breitbart London reports, "the eyewitness who insists Jo Cox’s killer shouted “Britain First” before murdering the MP was on the leaked British Nationalist Party (BNP) membership and contacts list. Britain First and the BNP are known to be openly hostile toward one another."
The original claim for the “Britain First” shout was local dry cleaner Aamir Tahir. In the following hours, however, Mr. Tahir has told other news outlets that he “wasn’t there [at the scene]” and simply heard the allegation as second-hand information. Another witness, Hicham Ben Abdallah, has said that he heard no such claim.
Additionally, there is no record of the last witness named in the Guardian – Graeme Howard – living in the area, though they claim he lived on Bond Street, just minutes away from the site of the murder. Breitbart London visited Bond Street – a tiny road – last night, and could not find Mr. Howard. A sign in a shop window close to where Mrs. Cox was killed insists that “no one shouted Britain First” at any time.
Others simply deny that Mair ever said "Britain First" in the first place.
Eyewitness tells reporters he didn't hear anyone shout "Britain first", saying: "Never heard that". pic.twitter.com/DWhzqe7ayi— Ben (@Jamin2g) June 16, 2016
To be sure, as we reported yesterday, Britain First spokesman Jayda Fransen distanced her organisation from the attacks, which she called “absolutely disgusting”.
All this has been sufficient for the UK police to say they have begun probing Mair's far-right links.
#BREAKING UK police say probing far-right links of MP murder suspect— AFP news agency (@AFP) June 17, 2016
As Reuters writes, "police were investigating Mair's political affiliations following witness accounts that the suspect shouted "Britain first" as he launched the attack."
And while the police should certainly probe whether or not Mair acted out due to ideological reasons, what is surprising is the almost mirror image to the Cox muder versus that of the Mateen mass shooting, by members of both the press and authorities. After all, only "fringe" voices have dared to accuse Mateen of being a "radicalized Islamist", while less than a day later Angela Merkel was throwing around the word "radicalization" in connection to the Cox shooting as if the motive was already known.
Here Glenn Greenwald makes an interesting observation:
I’m glad when the media withhold judgment about a killer’s motives or goals before there is sufficient evidence to know that with reasonable certainty. I have no particular objection to their refraining from applying the “terrorist” label to Cox’s killer before more evidence is available. And, as I said, the term “terrorist” at this point has so little cogent meaning that debates about how to apply it seem quaint and completely academic. The scholars Remi Brulin and Lisa Stampnitzky have spent years documenting how the term, from the start, was little more than a propaganda tool designed to legitimize one side’s violence while delegitimizing its enemies’ violence. The issue is that this journalistic restraint is extremely selective. Does anyone have any doubt at all that if Cox’s suspected killer had been Muslim, yelling “Allah Akbar” instead of “Britain First,” then every media outlet on the planet would be describing him forever as a “terrorist”? The fact that they are not doing so here sheds great light into what this word really is.
Greenwald may be right... if Mair indeed did yell that key phrase, as many have suggested never happened.
* * *
Whatever the true reason behind Mair's attack, it will likely not be revealed in time before the Brexit vote next week, unless said vote is postponed, speculation of which morbidly served as the catalyst to send risk assets soaring yesterday coupled with speculation that the backlash over the "Britain First" shouting "terrorist" would sway the Brexit campaign to the side of "Remain."
In the meantime, as we said at the start, expect both Brexit camps to distort this tragic event in a way that allows both to "score political points" by presenting the lone shooter in whatever light best serves their agenda. Hypocritical or not, even this skewing of reality may be too late as by now it is far more likely than not that enough people have made up their minds how they will vote in less than six days.
As for tragic events like the Cox murder, we can only hope that they will not be used for political purposes in the future as that would only serve to encourage more violence and death. We will be disappointed.