Jo Cox would have turned 42 today. Before she could, she was murdered by a man named Thomas Mair who, as we heard at the time, may or may not have suffered mental problems, may or may not have been committed to far-right or xenophobic policies, may or may not have yelled 'Britain first' as he pulled the trigger. But Thomas Mair was simply the fatal tip of an iceberg of abuse which Jo Cox received in her short time in parliament, invective and threat addressed to her for what we all know is no good reason. Still some people found rationale or excuse or compulsion enough to make those threats, and now she is dead.
It was only a week since I had sat in the World Service studios for four and a half hours, commenting live on Muhammad Ali's memorial service. What I watched transcended my sadness to fill me with hope and joy; I have rarely felt so proud to be American. Two days later, a man used an assault rifle to kill 49 people and wound 53 more at a gay club in Orlando. Then came Jo Cox's murder. When I heard the news I flashed back more than six years, to the shooting of the Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords while she was conducting a 'Congress on Your Corner' mobile surgery in a supermarket car park. Six people were killed but Giffords, remarkably, survived being shot in the head; her shooter was described as a paranoid schizophrenic, originally judged incompetent to stand trial, but is now serving life in prison. He has never explained his motivation.
Mair, on the other hand, was being portrayed in the media as a loner with problems, at least until he felt compelled when he appeared in court to give his name as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’, which convinced the judge not to brand him a terrorist but to refer him for psychiatric examination, as if Mair’s membership in Britain First and the Brexit referendum tomorrow were trivialities. Meanwhile, in the immediate outpouring of grief for Jo Cox and her family, a memorial appeal solicited donations for her three favourite charities, and a Tory councillor in her native Yorkshire tweeted his anger that her death was being used for political purposes by the Remain campaign, and falsely characterising the Leavers. As if to prove his point he made an obscene suggestion as to what he might be donating to Jo Cox’s memorial.
Compare that to the portrayal of Omar Mateen, who shot up the Pulse nightclub in Orlando a few days before Cox was killed. In this case of conflicting motivations, there was little doubt in the media’s collective unconscious that Mateen was, unlike Mair, a terrorist. I could place photos of the two men side by side and give you a clue to part of the explanation for this bifurcation.
We feel a human need to try to understand what seems incomprehensible when faced with such events, yet in the times since January 2011 when Giffords was shot, there was also a different sort of need, not just to assess motivation but also to claim identity victimhood, establish primacy within the latest atrocity news cycle. In the wake of the Pulse massacre, it was if the issues were queueing up to be taken the most seriously. At times the debate took on the tone of a television commercial: 'he's a homophobe'. 'No he's a terrorist.' 'Stop! You're both right.'
Omar Mateen chose his target carefully: it was a gay club and he appears to have been a self-loathing closeted gay man. He was also a Moslem and called the 911 emergency hotline just before he died to claim allegiance to ISIS and martyrdom for himself, something that apparently should be done before you undertake your act, not after. He was an abusive husband to his first wife. He was also a child of the internet age, a Millennial to the death, checking Facebook to see if 'Pulse Orlando shooting' was trending online even as he fired his gun.
Are these categories mutually exclusive? Omar Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle to inflict his damage; he had tried unsuccessfully to buy weapons and armour a few weeks earlier elsewhere in Florida; the gun store owner had reported him to the FBI. As with each of the interminable mass killings in America, this immediately became a gun control issue, and almost as immediately the US Senate failed to take even the mildest action at reforming America’s gun laws. It is likely only a matter of time some American commentator or NRA official, should they need more ammo, as it were, in the debate, notes that despite Britain's tight gun control laws, Thomas Mair used a pistol to kill Jo Cox.
It transpired that FBI had already questioned Mateen twice, based on conversations he'd had and people he knew, to inquire he if might be a terrorist. They found no reason to believe he was.. He also worked for G4S, in America viewed primarily as a supplier of security guards, not a major provider of government services as they are in the UK. G4S ran two separate background checks on Mateen. Paradoxically, his gun purchases, despite his history of domestic violence, were likely he was overlooked precisely because he had no ties to international terrorism, except those in his own mind. Yet in most of America’s media Mateen remains a terrorist, while Mair remains a lone crazed assassin.
When he wrote The Family, his book about the Charles Manson killings, Ed Sanders coined the phrase 'sleazo inputs' to try to explain what drove Manson and his followers to enter the world in which their gruesome killings were necessary and justifiable. In Manson's case those included the underbelly of LA, the cheap bars and strip clubs, the petty criminals, the religious hustlers, drug dealers, and show biz hangers-on. Having spent most of his life in prison, when Manson was released into the hippie world of the Sixties it was like putting a small piranha into a goldfish bowl.
We've moved on since 1971, but our goldfish bowl, while more exotic, may not be any better prepared for the odd predator. The Mansons of our time need not seek out sleazo inputs in the underbellies of our cities, on the fringes of our lives. They are beamed into our living rooms and fill our cyberspace. They are amplified by the respectable media, who need sleaze to attract an audience; they are repeated by those who deal in the currency of fear: calling on us to take sides, demonizing those who think or look or act or vote different, encouraging us to be all we can be while staying safe behind wall. They warn us that trouble is always brewing, that we are always under threat. They glorify the power of those who ‘serve’ our society with weaponry, at the same time they insist there actually is no society beyond our self-interest, and that self-interest is always under threat and must be protected. In our world these are not sleazo inputs. They are, simply, inputs. No wonder bodies fall.