This is a published article. The original article can be found here
How should we refer to Thomas Mair? Politically motivated and emotionally driven, he killed, with purpose and deliberation, a symbolic figure; Member of Parliament Jo Cox. Yet the double standards surrounding this case are baffling. Public discourse on the matter remains indecisive, even when defining what he is, and how to define him, has never been so important.
The truth is that he is quite simply a terrorist. In an age where we are only just getting to grips with the importance of language, narrative, and its symbiosis with mainstream media, it is imperative that we interrogate and classify people by one, consistent, unifying standard. That is as true of Thomas Mair as it is of anyone else.
This week, Mair was convicted of the same charges as the killers of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. But while they were unanimously named as terrorists, the labelling of Thomas Mair, with the same level of venom and extremist track record, triggered a bizarre hesitancy in media and public. Without any doubt, both cases were driven by a willingness to execute acts of politically motivated violence.
Despite being guilty of the same crimes, he has been described by many as simply a “right-wing nut”, a one-off operating alone. We disagree. The Crown Prosecution Service has in its proceedings found Mair’s crime to be an “act of terror”. Moreover, 1 in 3 cases of extremism referrals to the counter-extremism strategy Prevent are cases of far-right extremism. And still, public discourse has been hesitant to acknowledge that Mair’s actions were symptomatic of something very rotten, mental health issues aside.
In part, this may come from a desire to emphasise what a vile crime it was. It may also just be a natural part of today’s news cycle. Still, reluctance to admit that we have a problem in dealing with the far Right is dangerous. Acknowledging that Mair was mentally unstable is important, but the violence with which Jo Cox was slain was a result of politically motivated extremist views.
Furthermore, to infer that Jo’s death was a result of mental health issues is a dangerous insinuation that Thomas Mair developed his views in a socio-political vacuum. It implies that his views were formed spontaneously and, even worse, still carves a narrative into the public view, in which no one else really shares his views: that they are, in some ways, mere idiosyncrasies.
In some ways the broad failure to name Mair as a terrorist in the same way we did Lee Rigby’s killers is an admission that we, the public, associate terror attacks with a different kind of person – perhaps an “angry” young male Muslim rather than a sad old white male. But anyone who has lived in Northern Ireland will know that many terrorists look just like Mair; in another part of the UK he would have seemed straight out of central casting.
So public discourse, and our perceptions of where extremist violence comes from, needs to adapt swiftly if we are going to tackle both ends of the extremist spectrum. Our ability to identify extremism will rest on our willingness to apply the correct terminology to figures like Thomas Mair – to call a spade a spade if you will. We all know what happens to a problem when we neglect its existence; it will not solve itself, but emerge as an even bigger challenge, and with even more severe consequences.
We at the Quilliam Foundation have focused our work on getting the public to take extremism seriously, regardless of whether it is driven by Islamist or far Right ideologies. The fact that Islamist-driven terrorism has been at the forefront of public consciousness over the past decades means we have neglected acknowledging the severity of rising far Right extremist ideologies. But both of them promote hate and dehumanization of non-believers, and our research has shown that the two in fact stimulate and amplify each other.
We therefore cannot combat one of them without challenging both. Calling out far-right terrorism for what it is would be a great start.