Why is Jo Cox’s murder not ‘terrorism’?

Jo Cox’s murder is shocking. Much as already been said on how energetic and loved she was as a mum, a campaigner and an MP. Much more will be said about all this that is important (often more than the issue I want to touch on here), but I want to reflect on one particular curiosity.

That is: why is hardly anyone using the word ‘terrorism’ for what happened?

The term is of course notoriously difficult to agree on. Different commentators will argue passionately about the inclusion or exclusion of specific clauses in their preferred definition. For instance:

  • Do the perpetrators have to be ‘subnational’ actors (neatly exonerating states)?
  • Does the violence have to be ‘illegal’ or ‘illegitimate’ (and by what/whose measure)?
  • Do the methods have to be ‘unconventional’ (but what is ‘conventional’ these days)?
  • Do motives have to be strictly ‘political’ (but how do you define ‘political’)?
  • Must the attack be on ‘soft targets’ (but then what other word applies when soldiers are targeted)?

These are not insignificant aspects to consider, with good arguments pointing in different directions. Your preferred definition will depend on your conclusions on these clauses, which is one reason there are so many definitions of ‘terrorism’.

But even if you take a rather typical, mainstream and fairly narrow definition – such as: “politically motivated, illegal violence by a subnational actor on a soft target using unconventional weapons” – then that definition applies to Cox’s murder. Take most definitions, and it applies.

Take even the UK’s official definition in the Terrorism Act 2000, as: “the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; which involves or causes serious violence against a person, serious damage to a property, a threat to a person’s life [and a couple more clauses]”. Again, Cox’s murder seems to fit the definition.

The one uncertainty to date is the motive, but if the attacker did shout ‘Britain First’ (widely reported but so far unconfirmed), then, on top of Cox very probably being attacked because she was a politician and because of her specific politics, it would make it difficult to argue the motive was not ‘political’.

Without meaning to be flippant, just imagine for a second if the attacker had shouted ‘Allahu Akhbar’ instead? Wouldn’t the words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ be splashed about everywhere?

So then, how come the term isn’t used here? Is it that the mainstream commentariat (including politicians and journalists) is actually not even trying to use the term consistently? Why are many of those who for example described Lee Rigby’s killers as ‘terrorists’ not using the term here? What does the rush to label something ‘terrorism’ and the (at best) blissful or (at worst) wilful omission of that term for comparable acts say about the deeper prejudices that affect our analysis of such acts of political violence? And, to ask what is generally an important question: who does it benefit (that the term is used with such selective inconsistency)?

The term ‘terrorism’ carries very negative connotations. When a group has managed to convince (implicitly or explicitly) the majority of onlookers to label a particular act by another group as ‘terrorism’, that first group has scored a moral victory. How the term is used is therefore important. It may be that we should refrain from using it altogether since it is so loaded. Or perhaps we ought to at least try to use it consistently, i.e. to be clear and open about our own definition, and then apply it consistently.

Provided the motive proves to be ‘political’, Cox’s murder fits nearly any definition of ‘terrorism’. Analysing if and when the term begins to be used by prominent media and political actors for this particular act will continue to be quite revealing of underlying and unacknowledged political preferences which we could do worse than be more honest about, reflect upon and discuss.


Further sources:


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