The murder of British parliamentarian Jo Cox, allegedly as a result of her support for Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, has stunned that nation. While the man who attacked her is plainly disturbed, the savage assault on a much-admired young politician is a reminder of the deep fissures that have been aroused by the debate over the referendum on the EU this Thursday. No matter what side someone is on in this — or any other — political debate, violence is never appropriate or acceptable as a response.

Cox was an up-and-coming Labour MP. After graduating from university, she worked as head of policy for Oxfam in Britain and internationally, as well as for other international NGOs that focus on human rights issues. She ran for parliament in 2015, winning what is generally considered a safe Labour seat in northern England. She supported Britain’s continued membership in the EU.

She was attacked last Thursday as she held a “constituency surgery,” an event in her home district where she met members to address their concerns. The alleged attacker, Thomas Mair, is said to have shot her three times and then stabbed her repeatedly before being grabbed by police officers. Eyewitnesses claim that Mair shouted “Britain first,” or “put Britain first” during the attack.

Britain has been stunned by the attack. It is the first killing of a sitting MP since 1990, and the first time ever that the victim was a Labour member or a woman. Mair is reported to be a quiet, 52-year-old resident of Cox’s constituency, something of a loner who liked gardening. While he is said to be apolitical, Mair also is reported to have had ties to neo-Nazi groups and far-right organizations, and police are alleged to have found Nazi regalia and books. When asked his name at his court hearing, Mair replied “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

Plainly, Mair is a disturbed man. His resort to violence and the use of a gun, a rarely employed weapon in British crimes, is another indication of an aberrant personality. As always in such cases, the inclination to dismiss this attack as merely the result of mental illness is strong.

In truth, however, there is more to such violence than the workings of an unstable mind. While we must not excuse individuals from such actions or allow them to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes, unless they are genuinely mentally ill, we cannot at the same time ignore the environment in which these acts take place. The language of civic discourse is increasingly uncivil. In discussions, opponents are not merely countered, but they are disrespected and diminished. When logic does not suffice to make a point, the other side is labeled illegitimate.

All too often, the rhetoric is that of political violence, and while those who use such inflammatory speech are careful to remain within the bounds of legality — they cannot incite violence — their followers are indifferent to such technical concerns. And some speakers are winking and whistling to the faithful to encourage excesses while ensuring that they retain some deniability.

These are rhetorical flourishes to some, tricks to others. Either way, the result is a toxic atmosphere that thrives on escalation and exhortation to do more in the name of the cause. The emotions surrounding the issues being debated — what some call immigration and opportunity and others consider the future prosperity and security of individuals and national identity — can quickly rise to white-hot levels. Even attempts to damp down the intensity are dismissed and denigrated as political correctness, providing yet another reason to stoke tensions.

Immediately after Cox’s murder, Britain suspended campaigning on the referendum. Three days later, those efforts resumed and observers wonder what impact her killing will have on the vote. Cox was a fervent member of the “Remain” camp and it is expected that her death will sway some voters. In the first poll taken after her murder, 45 percent of the respondents were for staying in the EU, while 42 percent were against, a reversal of the previous poll, taken a week earlier and before the attack.

While the tragedy of Cox’s murder will weigh on voters, more compelling is likely to be thinking about immigrants and economic opportunities in the aftermath of Brexit. The focus of the exit campaign has become the fear of Britain being overwhelmed by foreign immigrants, particularly refugees from instability in the Middle East and worries that the country will be increasingly vulnerable to terrorist threats. Those voters who buy into such fears must by necessity ignore the obvious fact that Mair’s actions are proof that savagery can be homegrown. It need not be imported.

Those who make the case to remain are focusing on the hit that leaving the EU will have on the British economy. A recent International Monetary Fund analysis anticipates that leaving the EU will push Britain into recession, increase unemployment from 5 percent to 7 percent and lead wages to stagnate. Exit campaigners counter the doomsayers are exaggerating and Britain can more than make up for the losses. Whatever the answer, there is no place for violence in the resolution of that dispute, or any other. Our hearts and condolences go out to Cox’s family and her colleagues: No one should have to pay such a price for a political debate.

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