At first the news was very confused, just that a woman Member of Parliament had been shot and stabbed by a lone man. The cab driver had an immediate explanation: “He’ll turn out to be a bloke who hasn’t taken his meds”.
Other commentators were somewhat more circumspect but, as is the modern way, a picture quickly emerged of the perpetrator: a socially isolated, unemployed, reportedly kindly man who helped elderly neighbours, with former or current right wing political views. There was no mention of previous violence. Within a day there was some evidence of earlier far right links, other reports of his being a recluse, and then an account of his calling in at a clinic the day before the murder, saying that he had walked past it for five years without having the courage to come in for treatment. In a brief 15 minute discussion he complained of long-term depression, and was offered an appointment for later that week. A very reasonable response, in my view.
Most of the coverage, quite properly, was on the person who had been doing the usual thing, in this case the MP meeting constituents at her political surgery. Her work, her character, and her brief political career were celebrated respectfully. Political campaigning was suspended for some days, though on the basis of what we learned about her wish for strong political engagement she probably would not have wanted that.
Public curiosity, of course, latches on to the person who did the unusual thing, murdering another person. The public want explanations, and fast. It would be sensible to avoid a rush to judgment, but probably futile and even wrong: data pours in quickly now, as social networks commonly report the real facts very quickly: the perpetrator’s name (“named locally”, as the media say, cautiously and somewhat disdainfully) is quickly found, and local witness and neighbours give their impressions. We need to be Bayesian about the torrent of information. Some of what is said will turn out to be wrong, but most of it is highly informative. Nowadays the basis of the “why did they do it?” case is assembled very quickly, and possibly 80% of what we will know as members of the public will be known within a week. Left outside the picture will be the mental health records, the bread and butter of clinical work, those bulging files which lay out the progression of troubled lives.
Years ago a psychiatrist friend of mine gave instructions about the management of a particular locked-ward schizophrenic in-patient which were not followed, and he murdered a passer-by in a London park. She was pursued in an enquiry, and heavily criticized. The specifics of the case lead to a larger issue, which is how much compulsion on psychiatric patients should be applied in order to protect the public. In the jargon, what we need to know are the Numbers Needed to Treat, and the Numbers Needed to Harm. Many psychiatrists say that the numbers needed to treat are impossibly high, and that many people would be on forced medication in order to prevent one murderous event. Perhaps so, though that might be improved with better diagnostic techniques, and the downsides of taking medication are less than the downside of being murdered.
Since the UK murder rate is 1 per 100,000 (actually 14 per million) it is clear that with 4 MPs murdered since 1979 out of 650 per year, the rate is sky high above the population average. If one doubles the number to include a parliamentary aide for every member of parliament, then at 4 MPs plus 1 Parliamentary Assistant murdered per 1300 the rate is even higher. The perpetrators’ backgrounds are shown below.
2016 murder of MP Jo Cox by probable British Nationalist.
2010 attempted murder of MP Stephen Timms by Bengali Islamist woman (no mental illness defence).
2000 MP Nigel Jones stabbed, aide Andrew Pennington murdered by British male judged mentally unfit to stand trial.
1990 MP Ian Gow murdered by Irish Republicans
1984 MP Sir Anthony Berry murdered by Irish Republicans
1979 MP Airey Neave murdered by Irish Republicans
Personally, I would not jump to conclusions about these backgrounds, other than to say that political justifications are prominent, as one might expect if political representatives are the target, with mental illness a contributing factor for the lone operators. Also, the backgrounds should be compared with population figures to detect over-representation of any particular classification. Furthermore, in looking at apparently conflicting descriptions, it should be remembered that people are multi-faceted, and can be good with dogs whilst running death camps; helpful to elderly neighbours while hating politicians; mild and retiring most of the time and enraged in specific circumstances. Public behaviours are less informative than private readings and writings.
Politics as normal resumes tomorrow.