Senseless gun violence came to a British town only days after the horrific attack on L.G.B.T. people in Orlando, Fla. U.K. Member of Parliament Jo Cox was brutally murdered in the street of Birstall, the tidy little West Yorkshire town which she represented. She had been seen as one of the brightest stars of Labour’s intake at the last general election.
Both sides in the European Union Referendum campaign, with voting scheduled for exactly one week from today, have suspended their campaigns until at least until Friday night, and the International Monetary Fund announced late on Thursday that it was delaying its latest report on the anticipated impact of a "Brexit" for 24 hours. Big events related to the vote have been called off, including the Thursday evening broadcast of the BBC’s influential Question Time political panel debate. Flags at government buildings are already at half-staff throughout London and in every town; an impromptu vigil has formed in London’s Parliament Square. West Yorkshire Police are insisting that there is no cause to link this awful murder to any external political campaign or global terror threat.
Cox was a well-known figure long before standing for parliament because of her work in service of the underprivileged. She had risen to a senior position at the U.K. relief and development agency Oxfam before a career-change into U.K. politics, quickly enhancing her already glowing reputation as she took up her seat in the House of Commons. She was particularly noted as a strong advocate for the people of Syria.
She was on her way to carry out her democratic duties, which she loved; as most M.P.s do, she was about to hold one of her regular “surgeries,” as meetings with constituents are known in the United Kingdom, in the Birstall town library.
Her husband, also a professional in the charity sector, issued this statement: “She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous."
Despite yesterday’s assertion by West Yorkshire police force, reports are circulating widely that the man locally named as the suspect, one Thomas Mair, had links to far-right white-supremacist groups. Allegations are all over our mainstream media and online outlets alike in Britain that, at the moment of assassinating the M.P., this man was heard to shout more than once, “Britain First,” or, in some versions, “Put Britain First.”
If those reports turn out to be accurate they show a clear connection to next week’s European Union referendum here in Britain. The campaign has increasingly been tarnished by xenophobic themes that have come very close to outright racism, as immigration became a key plank in the Leave campaign’s platform. At the same time, media reports are uncovering evidence that the suspect procured home-made gun manuals from National Alliance, a U.S.-based far-right group, together with printed material connected with Nazism. Reports suggest that this group calls for all-white homeland and the eradication of Jewish people. A book authored by this group’s founder, one William Pierce, was found to have been an influence on Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber.
At this time, West Yorkshire police have not charged anyone with the killing, although it is widely asserted that Mair is the man arrested and held in custody. West Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Mark Burns Williamson, said: "My thoughts and prayers are with Jo’s family at this time.
"I have worked closely with Jo since she was elected and I am deeply shocked that such a talented young woman has been senselessly attacked and killed whilst working in her constituency and serving her community.
"This is a truly shocking incident but I want to reassure communities that our information is that this is a localised incident, albeit one that has a much wider impact.
"I must stress that investigations are ongoing, a man has been arrested, and we need to let the police do their job in understanding exactly what has happened that led up to this hugely tragic incident and channel all our thoughts into supporting the families and communities affected."
We all know of the questions being asked yet again in the United States after Orlando about gun control, and as after every such massacre almost all Brits find the ease with which almost anyone in America can get a gun less and less intelligible. That this murder is on a smaller scale numerically than the outrage in Orlando is not the point. We never thought that we’d begin asking similar questions here. Gun control measures were tightened up, with almost complete popular support, after the last major mass-shooting incident in the United Kingdom, at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, just over 20 years ago.
But today among the many questions that people here are asking is how the alleged killer came into possession of a firearm. It is very difficult to get your hands on a gun in the United Kingdom, although Britons do not boast of having a society free of gun crime. The two officers who overcame, held and arrested the alleged killer bore no firearms themselves.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.