24 November 2016
The contrast between the murders of Lee Rigby and Jo Cox is stark.
By Maria Norris
On Wednesday, Thomas Mair was convicted of the murder of Jo Cox, an act which the Crown Prosecution Service has categorised as terrorism. Section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000 states that the an act may still be considered an act of terror even if it was not designed to influence the government or the public, as long as a firearm or explosives are involved and the act was politically, ideologically, religiously, or racially motivated. Nair’s murder of Jo Cox falls neatly under this definition. So does the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013.
And yet, the difference in the reaction to these very similar murders is astounding. After Lee Rigby was killed, the media was filled with alarmist headlines about the dangers of Islamic extremism. There was no hesitation to label Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, Rigby’s murderers, as terrorists or the murder as a terrorist attack. After Lee Rigby’s murder, even before Adebolajo and Adebowale’s trial, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, chaired an emergency Cobra meeting and the government announced a new taskforce to fight Islamic extremism. However, when it came to Mair, there was a sudden concern regarding contempt of court, and even now there is a real hesitancy to actually label him as a terrorist. Has Theresa May chaired a Cobra meeting? Has she announced a taskforce to combat far-right extremism? No.
Days after Jo Cox’s murder, I wrote in The Staggers that we were blind to the rise of far-right extremism. Today, I see this blindness as part of a larger context where the far-right is being normalised. Take the USA as an example. The election of Donald Trump hinged on the increase visibility and support of far-right policies and behaviours, with some supporters expressing anti-Semitism and racism. However, after the election, there has been a rush to normalise not just Trump, but also the far-right extremism that got him into power. By calling itself "alt-right", the American far-right can deflect accusations of neo-nazism or white nationalism.
What this underlines is the racial classification of behaviour, where the dangerous behaviour of men of colour is held up as an example of deviant cultural problems, while the same dangerous behaviour in white men is dismissed as an isolated incident. Hence the twisted logic where the entire Muslim population of a country is expected to apologise every time there is a terrorist attack, and yet, no such reaction is needed when a white supremacist is the terrorist.
None of this is new. This is nationalism. A nationalism which suddenly seems to be resurgent, but which immigrants and people of colour have always known was there. It is this same nationalism which has framed terrorism as a foreign problem, and stopped the government from reacting to far-right extremism with the same laser focus that it reserves for Islamic extremism. Our Prime Minister is still silent on the topic of far-right extremism. As long as this remains the case, terrorism in all its forms will continue to threaten us all.
Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science.