Hugh Muir: Violence with a political aim makes Mair a terrorist
The facts about what Thomas Mair did are beyond shocking, beyond dispute, and so hard for us to comprehend that we seek a suitable vocabulary. He was convicted by a criminal court and given a whole-life sentence. So does that make him merely a criminal of our worst imagination? Or does it go further than that? Can he reasonably be described as a terrorist?
Jo Cox’s bereaved and resolutely dignified partner, Brendan, gave us a clear view into his thinking. This, he said, was a political act – an “incompetent and self-defeating” act of terrorism. Not because the attack itself was not meticulously executed (it clearly was) but because it had wider and deeper aims: aims that Brendan Cox believed the attacker had failed to fulfil. Instead of engineering hate, Cox said, Mair had triggered an outpouring of love and solidarity.
The Oxford Dictionaries definition of a terrorist is: “A person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” That clearly describes Mair and his modus operandi.
As he struck the fatal blows, he made clear that his was not solely an attack on Cox as an individual: “This is for Britain,” he said, and “Keep Britain independent,” reloading his gun. His first court appearance, where he gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, confirmed that wider motivation.
Even a mind as warped as Mair’s cannot have believed that the slaying of one MP would achieve his desired aim. It was an attack on a public representative with the intention of terrorising all that she and others like her represented.
She was the blameless victim, but the target was a philosophy.
That Mair, as an avowed neo-Nazi, was apparently working alone without any obvious association with a group, does not detract from the fact that his aims were terrorist aims and the template employed was that of the terrorist.
After the verdict, Sue Hemming, head of special crime and counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, said her officials had no doubt as to how Mair might best be classified. “Motivated by hate, his premeditated crimes were nothing less than acts of terrorism designed to advance his twisted ideology,” she said.
Hemming and her team had the option of prosecuting Mair under anti-terrorism legislation. They chose not to do so, not because he fell outside the definition but because the charges were framed in such a way as to make his motivation irrelevant.
For all that, the killing of Jo Cox was recognised at the time, by parliamentarians and the public at large – at home and abroad – for what it was: an attempt to leverage an isolated act of violence so as to achieve a magnified intimidatory and political effect. Terrorists have been doing that for years.
Joseph Harker: Mair acted alone so should not be seen as a terrorist
It has become a cliche question among race-rights campaigners (with whom I have common cause): “Why aren’t far-right crimes considered terrorism?” Such a common question that now, it seems, the police are changing tack and labelling Thomas Mair a terrorist (though not so much that they actually charged him with terrorism offences).
It’s certainly true that a narrow definition of terrorism as a “political act” would include Mair. But whatever one particular dictionary might say, there is no widely agreed definition of terrorism.
And while I don’t doubt that Mair’s motives were political, in the common understanding and usage of the term “terrorism”, more than this is required. Because, though he had far-right sympathies, it’s clear his actions weren’t supporting anyone’s agenda but his own.
To my knowledge there is no organisation that calls for the violent overthrow of the state, or for the killing of leftwing MPs. And though some eyewitnesses reported Mair shouting “Britain first” during his attack on Jo Cox, there’s no evidence he was acting for, or under the instruction of, the legal rightwing organisation of the same name.
In fact, the commonly held perception is that a criminal has to be acting on behalf of a wider organisation to be considered a terrorist. So, for example, even though there have been several “lone wolf” attacks by jihadi extremists in the UK and beyond, they are carrying out the agenda of Islamic State, or al-Qaida, and part of a wider bloody struggle. These terror groups gain power because every attack carries the specific and sharpened threat of further violence from another sympathiser.
Mair’s guidance came from inside his head. His was a shocking hate crime against a dedicated young woman who was trying to make the world a better place, but it’s not surprising that this wasn’t widely considered a terror attack amid all the reporting at the time.
And if we’re to consider all “political acts” terrorism, then where do we stop? Was the Yorkshire Ripper, who wanted to rid the world of sex workers, a terrorist? What about Robert Ashman, the man who in 2000 killed Andrew Pennington, an aide to the Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones? Lee Harvey Oswald shot a president but has rarely, if ever, been called a terrorist.
By overusing the label we merely dilute our sense of the evil that lies behind those groups and networks that coolly and calculatingly conspire to bring about wide-scale slaughter.
And, to my fellow race equality campaigners: I’m not, of course, saying that far-right crimes cannot be considered terrorism. Groups such as Combat 18 have carried out acts of violence and harassment against Britain’s ethnic minorities since the 1970s. And the historic campaign of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan makes it, in my view, a terrorist organisation. The KKK is, however, still legal in the United States, and its favoured candidate is about to move into the White House. It may take some time before this group is officially given the status it deserves.