The Motives Behind Murder of UK Member of Parliament Jo Cox
Dr Raj Persaud and Dr David James
A man has now been charged with murder in connection with the shooting of UK Member of Parliament Jo Cox. The attacker is reported to have shouted ‘Britain First’ as he repeatedly kicked the mother-of-two before shooting her three times – once in the head – as well as repetitively stabbing her.
It has now emerged that a female MP wrote to Mr Cameron last year raising concerns about the safekeeping of her parliamentary colleagues and apparently the police had been about to increase security for Mrs Cox, as she had begun to be harassed by a stream of abusive messages over recent months.
Clues as to the motives behind such a shocking and bizarre attack might be found in research conducted by a team of Forensic Psychiatrists and Psychologists led by UK psychiatrist Dr David James (one of the co-authors of this article). Members of Parliament in the UK were surveyed and key findings include: 81% of UK MPs had experienced one or more aggressive or intrusive behaviours: 18% had been subject to attack or an attempted physical attack, 42% to threats to harm and 22% to property damage.
This is the first investigation of the prevalence of aggressive and intrusive acts towards Members of Parliament in the UK, and is also the largest sample of MPs from a single parliament yet studied.
The study entitled ‘Aggressive/intrusive behaviours, harassment and stalking of members of the United Kingdom parliament: a prevalence study and cross-national comparison’, published MPs reports of their experiences, included the following comments: ‘Pulled a knife on me in the surgery’: ‘repeatedly punched me in the face’: ‘came at me with a hammer’: ‘hit with a brick’: ‘shot with air rife’: ‘attacked by a constituent with a samurai sword. I escaped with injuries to my hand, but my assistant was killed’: ‘stabbed in the head’: ‘cheek slashed’: ‘shot at’: ‘letters containing razor blades’.
One hundred and one MPs (42.3% of respondents in the study) had experienced threats to harm them or those close to them, directly or indirectly. There were numerous reports of ‘death threats,’ both in person and by mail and ‘bomb threats’. Other examples were: ‘you had better keep an eye on your children’; ‘stated he would kill me if his child dies in hospital’: ‘threat to kill me by telephone at home – call taken by my seven-year-old daughter’: ‘wife received phone calls saying “I am going to kill you or one of your family”’: ‘powder in letter to office’: ‘petrol poured through letter box’: ‘said would shoot my family with a cross-bow’.
The research, published in the academic ‘Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology’, points out that historically the main risk of serious injury or death to politicians is from fixated loners, rather than terrorist groups. Such lone actors are usually pursuing deeply personal grievances while many have a history of mental illness.
There are unconfirmed reports that the man arrested for the murder of Jo Cox may have had mental health problems in the past and may even have been released recently from psychiatric care. The BBC News and other media sites are now reporting that the man charged with the murder, Thomas Mair, apparently gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” when appearing at Court.
One important conclusion from studying this group is that so-called ‘lone actor terrorists’ share more in common mentally with ‘fixated loners’ than they do with terrorist groups. This psychological profile may also explain the shooter in the recent Orlando gay nightclub tragedy.
Given what may be emerging about the abusive messages that Jo Cox had been receiving months prior to the attack, the authors of this study, David James, Frank Farnham, Seema Sukhwal, Katherine Jones, Josephine Carlisle and Sara Henley, also point out in their study that fixated individuals who physically attack have often given some prior indication of the risk that they may go on to pose, while other kinds of assassins or assailants will not. These indications are termed ‘warning behaviours’ by those who specialise in the security of people in the public eye.
The figure of 38% of UK MPs experiencing stalking at some time in their career compares with lifetime stalking prevalence for the general population of 18% for women and 8% for men uncovered by a recent nationally representative survey of over 4000 adults in Great Britain, conducted by Raj Persaud and David James in collaboration with YouGov.
Stalking prevalence amongst MPs is almost twice that experienced by psychiatrists in the UK or general practitioner doctors, both these being high-risk professions.
One quote from a Member of Parliament surveyed in this study was: ‘I hadn’t realised quite how many mentally ill people there are until I became an MP’.
A follow up paper published on the survey, entitled, ‘Harassment and stalking of Members of the United Kingdom Parliament: associations and consequences’, found that of those behaving intrusively or aggressively towards MPs, almost half appeared obsessive and paranoid, while mental illness was thought to be present in around 40%.
Motivational themes that emerged in this investigation of MP’s harassers included beliefs that the politician was involved in a persecution conspiracy – for example quotes from a Member of Parliament in the study include: ‘Believed that I was responsible for his problems and was in a conspiracy with others to poison him’. Other motivational themes of harassers included anger at perceived failure of MPs to help, insistent and unrealistic requests for help, venting of anger, political quests and mental illness so severe that the precise grievance was too incoherent to comprehend.
This follow up research, also published in the ‘Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology’, found 18 Labour Party MPs (22.5%) reported attacks/attempted at attack, compared with six (10.3%) of Conservative Party Members of Parliament. Labour MPs were significantly more likely than Conservative MPs to report having been followed, and to have their property interfered with.
The follow up study, authored by David James, Seema Sukhwal, Frank Farnham, Julie Evans, Claire Barrie, Alice Taylor and Simon Wilson, concludes from the patterns observed, that newer MPs, who have yet to acquire experience of handling difficult constituents, may become over-involved, raising false hopes which, when not fulfilled, ignites repeated, angry, intrusive behaviours.
The authors of this study point out that this predicament appears analogous to the situation with new General Practitioner doctors and their patients.
Jo Cox became an MP last year.
Dr David James was the lead clinician at the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre (FTAC), a specialist joint police-psychiatric unit for the assessment and management of cases involving the stalking, harassment or threatening of public figures in the United Kingdom. It is this unit, part of the special protection services for Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, which is at the centre of Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel, ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, published as part of National Stalking Awareness Week with all profits donated to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.