Why is the killer of British MP not being called a terrorist?

Glenn Greenwald says that it is really telling how the media are avoiding calling the murderer of British MP Jo Cox a terrorist, a label that they have no difficulty assigning if the killer is a Muslim or if the motive for the attack involves the various wars being waged against Muslim-majority countries.

British Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered yesterday. Although the motive is not yet proven, there is mounting evidence that the detained suspect, 52-year-old white male Thomas Mair, was motivated by political ideology. Cox was an outspoken advocate for refugees. At least two witnesses say Mair, as he carried out the attack, yelled “Britain First,” the name of a virulently right-wing anti-immigrant party. He has years of affiliation with neo-Nazi groups: what Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “a long history with white nationalism.” The UK is in the midst of a bitter and virulent debate about whether to exit the EU – Cox opposes that – and much of the pro-Brexit case centers around fear-mongering over immigrants.

Despite all of this, it’s virtually impossible to find any media outlet calling the attacker a “terrorist” or even suggesting that it might be “terrorism.” To the contrary, the suspected killer – overnight – has been alternatively described as a gentle soul or a mentally ill “loner”:

This stands in stark contrast to a very similar incident that took place in the UK in 2010, when a British MP, Stephen Timms, was brutally stabbed and almost killed by a woman angry over his vote in support of the Iraq War. In that case, British media outlets almost uniformly called the attack “terrorism”; The Guardian, for instance, described it as “the first terrorist attack to injure someone on the UK mainland since 7 July 2005.” The headline of the British tabloid Mirror called the attacker “woman terrorist.” And just yesterday, another tabloid, The Sun, reported on Timms’ comments about Cox and, in its headline, referred to him as “Terror Stab Survivor.”

The difference is obvious: Timms’ attacker was a Muslim of Bangladeshi descent, while Cox’s alleged killer … is not. As I’ve written repeatedly, the word “terrorism” has no real concrete meaning and certainly no consistent application. In the west, functionally speaking, it’s now a propaganda term with little meaning other than “a Muslim who engages in violence against westerners or their allies.” It’s even used for Muslims who attack soldiers of an army occupying their country.

When the killer is white, the quick conclusion is that they are ‘mentally disturbed’, an exculpatory formulation that excuses the rest of the population from collective guilt in the way that all Muslims are tarnished when the attacker is a Muslim.

The propagandist mindset of the media is deep-rooted and almost reflexive. As Greenwald says, “Does anyone have any doubt at all that if Cox’s suspected killer had been Muslim and yelled “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.”


  1. Ketil Tveiten says

    It really is sad that the media is so a) predictable and b) defensive of the Right. The Brexit killer* was a terrorist, no ifs no buts; the political motivation is obvious. Compare the Orlando killer; he’d *obviously* get the “mentally disturbed loner” treatment if he was white.

    *You can be damned sure he’d be “the Brexit killer” in the media if Brexit was a lefty or ethnic thing.

  2. says

    The word “terrorism” has no meaning anymore.

    Originally, the FBI used to define it as “attempting to influence a political process from the outside, through force or threats of force.” Which means that the FBI, and many others, are terrorists. They have stopped trying to have an official definition -- now it’s just a term that means “bad guy we are demonizing”

  3. mck9 says

    I disagree. This wasn’t an act of terrorism, it was a political assassination. That’s just as deplorable, but it’s not the same thing. To me, terrorism is directed at ordinary innocent citizens, with the intent (so far as one can discern intent for such madness) of creating a climate of generalized fear among other ordinary citizens.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    I tend to agree with mck9, for any reasonable definition of “terrorist”. Of course, that also applies to the Timms attack. So yeah, the word has become meaningless, like “judicial activism”.

  5. Nick Gotts says

    Crossposted from a Phsryngula thread (original has some links):

    Despite the no doubt irrelevant facts that Thomas Mair, the suspect in Jo Cox MP’s killing, has known far right connections, is reported to have shouted “Britain first!” or “put Britain first” while attacking Cox, and that Cox has been prominent in the “Remain” campaign, there has – as far as I have seen – quite rightly been no mention of the word “terrorism” in the UK media in connection with the killing. After all, that would be completely uncalled-for. The suspect was, apparently, a “loner” with a “history of mental health problems”, so that accounts for the unfortunate incident – loners with such histories are forever shooting and stabbing MPs in the street these days. I’m sure we’d have seen similar reticence if the suspect had been called, say, Hamid Khan, had visited jihadi websites, and had shouted “Allahu Akbar!” while killing her.

    And of course, there’s always the possibility – nay, the likelihood, given the deviousness of lefties and Muslims – that this was a false flag attack.


    Do you agree with me that the media would have shown similar restraint in the hypothetical case I describe?

  6. mck9 says

    Nick Gotts says @5:

    I would expect your hypothetical Hamid to be called a terrorist. The rules are different for Muslims. On the other hand I would still prefer to call him an assassin.

  7. flex says

    I may be splitting hairs, but doesn’t the etymology of “assassin” suggest that it was originally designated as a killer who was used to attempt to influence a political process through force?

    Which means that ‘terrorist’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘assassin’? The difference is really that the word ‘assassin’ has expanded over the years to include non-political targets.

  8. Lofty says

    A “terrorist” is someone whose actions allow you to demonise an entire ethnic group in one go. By definition a terrorist can’t be One Of Us.

  9. blf says

    They [the FBI] have stopped trying to have an official definition [of “terrorism”]

    Eh? From the FBI’s own site, Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code. It is quite a complex / lengthy definition, and not necessarily a good one. For example, it must “Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law”, which leaves a lot of wiggle-room for the FBI, CIA, etc., to argue they don’t engage in terrorism. And for some reason, in “international terrorism”, a single act, as well as the above-quoted multiple acts, counts, provided that the act(s) are “violent”. But “domestic terrorism” (the above quote) omits the violent — convenient, that, it could be construed as organizing / attending a discussion or protest about the extrajudicial drone mass murders is “domestic terrorism” (that would be very unlike to fly in court due to First Amendment protections).

  10. lanir says

    For the sake of argument let’s say I am white, male and middle aged. I think I could even be described as a “gentle soul” by some of my friends and have it be reasonably accurate although I’d hope they came up with a less cliched way to say it.

    But where in the act of picking up a gun and violently murdering someone for talking in ways I disagree with am I a “gentle soul”? Is it in how I scream out clues as to why I hate him as I’m shooting and killing him? Is there some deeply meaningful inflection in there that witnesses will pick up on and report later?

    If I ever commit premeditated murder, getting a write-up as the kindly, doddering old sort of murderer is not the help I want or need.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    When the killer is white, the quick conclusion is that they are ‘mentally disturbed’, an exculpatory formulation that excuses the rest of the population from collective guilt …

    The white population, that is -- not the mentally disturbed population (even the white ones).

  12. Isabel says

    In fairness, the descriptions of the killer as a “gentle soul” came from his baffled and horrified neighbours, who were simply responding to questions about the man they thought they had known. In the interviews I read, as reported by the BBC, none of them was denying or defending what he had turned out to be. In the first couple of days after the murder, the police would not reveal any information about the killer’s motivation, and in the absence of fresh news the reporters just interviewed various people who had known him. Now that further evidence has come out, the press is, as far as I can see, willingly pursuing the story of a man with secret neo-Nazi leanings and interest in the mechanics of violence.

    There is still not much use of the word “terrorism”. I agree with mck9 that Jo Cox’s murder was strictly an assassination, intended to silence a particular voice rather than make citizens in general feel vulnerable. I also agree that it would nevertheless have been described as terrorism if the perpetrator had been a Muslim.

  13. lanir says

    My criticism of the “gentle soul” label is mostly that it made it into any reporting. I don’t think it really adds anything to a story, it’s just a label that typifies the guy as something he’s not. Depending on how it’s used the reporter also sometimes implies that the guy was a nice person and then encountered an issue that turned him homicidal. I tend to think these are false narratives because there usually isn’t any other attempt to follow up on the thought processes of someone as they change into someone willing to murder other people.

    I’m ambivalent about the assassination label as well. Related terms have acquired a sort of romanticism of their own in media. And I think assassinations really are intended to have a knock-on effect and keep others from following in the footsteps of the person who was murdered. In this case for example, if he just wanted the guy dead it would have been better to just kill him without saying “Britain first.” I would guess he’ll get a harsher sentence for having said that. But now people who oppose that movement will probably spare a thought at some point about their own safety.

  14. Dunc says

    @13: He’s probably going to get a harsh sentence for playing silly buggers with the court -- at his initial hearing, he insisted on giving his name as “Death to traitors, and freedom for Britain”. If he carries on like that, I feel sorry for his defence lawyer…

    Oh, and Jo Cox was a woman.

  15. Nick Gotts says

    But the whole point of Greenwald’s article, and the OP, is the different names attached to violent acts according to who carries them out. Your #3 is simply beside the point.

    #13,14: Mair is going to be in prison for a very long time, and I doubt whether what he shouted while murdering Jo Cox, or his demeanour in court, will make any difference.

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