June 18, 2016 § 2 Comments
Content note: graphic descriptions of violence
Twenty years apart, two students graduate from university. Both are doing humanities subjects, both state educated, both coincidentally with names that fit them into a similar point in the alphabetical lineup. They both look up at the old gate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and walk through it, and up King’s Parade, step by step, to bow and get hands shaken and get given their degrees.
There are other similarities, too – both are small-l liberal minded, with hearts that beat on the left. Internationalist minded people, for whom war and refugees are key issues in the world, albeit also people with a strong emotional connection to the places in the UK where they grew up and that they love.
It is a year later, twenty-one years after the first student graduated.
She is dead.
She is shot several times, and stabbed, by a man who gives his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. People attempt to help her but he wards them off with a knife and continues to butcher her in the street, just outside a local library, shouting “Britain first”, or “put Britain first”, according to eyewitnesses. Her last words are “my pain is too much”. She bleeds half to death there on the pavement and dies in hospital.
And two days after that – it takes two days to have any words to write – the second student looks out of the window at a grey sky, and then back to the laptop where this blogpost, attempting to express the inexpressible, appears letter by letter on the screen.
This was terrorism, as surely as anything else I have witnessed in my lifetime. I know because, on some level, I am terrified.
I never met Jo Cox, and her story isn’t mine – indeed hers, coming from a considerably less privileged start in life, is many times more impressive than anything I am ever likely to write for myself. But the coincidences are there, if indeed they are coincidences, and that I think is why, when I heard of her death, I was lost for words. I am not usually lost for words; writing is what I do, in many ways writing is my defence when the world is worrying me. The murder of Jo Cox left me feeling defenceless.
We need to face up to why Jo died. She was killed for what she believed in, she was killed as a specific targeted attack because she was saying things and fighting battles that other people did not like. And that’s what sticks in the mind, that’s why this is terrorism. I am someone who may well, at some point, look toward representing people and putting my values into practice serving a community. Jo’s murder gave the absolute and clear message that to do so, to stand up for internationalist and humanitarian values, is to run the risk of getting murdered in the street.
This, if anything, makes me feel that it’s more important to do exactly that – to fight the battles she no longer can – but the knowledge of that risk will be there, in the back of my mind.
The other reason it sticks in my head is that, whilst I’m shocked… what really terrifies me is how unsurprised I am that it has come to this. The sentiments this terrorist acted on are everywhere. Unchecked, especially during this referendum campaign, a range of rhetoric on a sliding scale of unpleasantness has bubbled up, primarily on the leave side, that denies the identity and humanity of internationalists and remain campaigners. The idea that Remainers “don’t believe in Britain” is something I’ve talked about before and something that has become totally mainstream as a catchphrase for anyone in the leave camp. Beyond that is the lurking spectre of the word “traitor” – which I have also seen used very directly regarding the referendum campaign, accompanied sometimes by discussions of violence.
This problem of divisive nationalism is mostly specific to one side of the campaign, and it is, in my mind, more dangerous than most of the rest of the campaign on either side put together. That’s not to say that all the people who use the “you don’t believe in your country” trope, or even those who call their enemies traitors, are inherently bad people, and it’s certainly not to suggest that they were condoning murder. But this is the atmosphere – one of restless unpleasantness and division – in which more and more unpleasant sentiments can brew up. It’s an atmosphere where the death of Jo Cox sickened me but did not come as a bolt from the blue, and that alone is worth seriously reflecting on.
A war over how we see identity has, I fear, become the black heart of the referendum campaign and of my country’s politics. The demand that we hold a certain identity to the exclusion of others is always dangerous, and it is always wrong.
I probably won’t ever be as good an activist as Jo Cox became, or indeed as good as so many of my friends are, doing such valuable things all over the world. But carrying a little bit of their hope and her hope might help me do a bit more good; each of us who can make the world around us a bit more compassionate may only be the smallest of candles, but when it feels like the dark is gathering – and it does, in so many ways – every candle is important. Making the world a better place is important, making it a kinder place is important, and showing how much we appreciate the people who do so is important.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
I will try my hardest to remember a person not so very unlike me for those words, words which are so very important to hold onto. Remember Jo Cox. Carry her kindness. Carry her candle. Carry her hope.