The assignment of responsibility for terrible events can be viewed simplistically, or it can be viewed in a way that takes into account the complex web of influences in the human world. So it is with the question: Who is responsible for the shooting of the British member of Parliament, Jo Cox, last week?
At the simple level – which is also entirely valid – the responsibility apparently rests with the accused shooter, the 52-year-old Scotsman, Thomas Mair.
At the more complex level, I would argue, it is probable that some of the responsibility rests with Donald Trump or, one might say, with the “spirit” that Trump has unleashed into the world with his campaign.
Is that connection plausible? Is that accusation fair?
Here’s how I see an entirely plausible set of steps by which the path back from Mair to Trump could be traced.
For starters, a good deal of the discussion of Mair’s actions has connected Mair’s actions – killing a pro-EU member of parliament — with the increasingly inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric heard from the “Brexit” side of Britain’s current intense debate on whether to leave the EU.
That connection is made doubly plausible by the fact that Mair is reported to have shouted “put Britain first” at the time of the shooting, and that he subsequently gave his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” A kind of white nationalism – which had become increasingly vocal in the political environment surrounding Mair — seems to have motivated Mair’s attack on Cox.
In other words, Mair’s actions – like everything all of us do – took place in a context.
Had there been no EU referendum, or if the debate over “Brexit” had stirred up less bigotry and anger, there is a reasonable possibility that Mair would not have made his lethal attack. It is entirely plausible that the intensifying force of bigotry rising around him pushed him over the edge.
(It seems plausible also to think that the British themselves have drawn some such connection, for it appears that in the wake of this crime, the momentum on the referendum has swung back from “Leave” to “Remain.” That swing in public sentiment suggests that — in the eyes of a segment of the British population — the assassination of Jo Cox discredited the “Brexit” cause on account of its role in strengthening some ugly passions in the public arena.)
If it is reasonable to see Mair’s as influenced by the emboldened white nationalism in Britain at their moment of decision, is it also reasonable to imagine that the rise of Donald Trump in America could have similarly influenced Mair?
There are two ways that could plausibly have happened — one through Trump having a direct impact on Mair, the other through Trump fortifying the white nationalist/supremacist forces in Britain, which in turn influenced Mair.
Mair himself has ties with American neo-Nazi groups, and such groups in America have been quite vocal about how encouraged they’ve been by Trump’s success. Since Trump has emboldened these groups, surely Mair may have been emboldened likewise.
Trump’s emergence — from a supposed political joke to clear front-runner to the presumptive nominee of one of America’s two major parties — has been huge news not only in this nation, but all around the world. That certainly includes Britain. We may recall that a popular petition in Britain led their Parliament to debate a resolution that would have barred Trump from their nation. So, clearly, the image and message of Trump has been an important part of British consciousness.
If it is true that Trump has encouraged and emboldened America’s racist/nationalistic fringe — and it is — is there any reason to believe that he wouldn’t have a similar impact on similar groups in Britain? Would not the rise to a position of great prominence of someone expressing a spirit akin to their own fortify the forces of racism and bigotry in our closest ally as well?
We cannot know whether, has there been no Trump, Jo Cox would still be alive. And in any event, there is no question here of Trump having any legal responsibility. But the human world’s densely interwoven fabric of causes and effects means that a given action can be the fruit of a variety of causes. And as every action has many sources, moral responsibility for those actions properly gets spread around.
One important way that cause-and-effect weaves its way in the human world is through the operation of contagion – a phenomenon visible throughout history.
Something like the recent “Arab Spring” cannot be understood well without a recognition of the reality of contagion. After events in Tunisia brought down an authoritarian regime in that nation, long-standing regimes in other Arab countries – in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria – also came under popular challenge.
Another illustration of contagion involves the cascade of events in Eastern Europe near the end of the Cold War – the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed immediately thereafter by the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and onward to other nations in the region. That same contagious example of peoples freeing themselves from oppressive regimes contributed, months later, to the rise of the Democracy Movement in China (that movement which was crushed so brutally by the Tiananmen massacre).
History is full of such examples — the good, the bad, and the ugly — of movements spreading by people being moved by what they see other people feeling and doing.
We are animals wired for contagion. Try yawning in the presence of a group of people and see what happens. People tend to laugh when others laugh, smile when they smile, cry when others around them do likewise. Anger is contagious, and so are good vibes. And as we civilized humans have organized ourselves into nations and as we watch each other on a global scale, contagion operates also on that larger scale.
Which is all the more reason why we should not want a spokesman for bigotry – an apostle for Us-vs.-Them passions – to become the leader of our nation. To paraphrase John Donne: “No nation is an island, Entire unto itself, Every nation is a piece of the planet, A part of the humankind’s global civilization.” And that is especially true when that nation is the one that long has been called, “The leader of the free world.”
Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for us all.