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The Brexit Debate's Dark Turn

The murder of British MP Jo Cox has left much of the country in disbelief.
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn at a memorial for murdered MP Jo Cox.
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn at a memorial for murdered MP Jo Cox.Phil Noble/Reuters

It’s hard to over-emphasize the sense of raw shock in Britain at the murder Thursday of Jo Cox. A Labour Party MP with a track record of pro-refugee and human rights campaigning, Cox was both stabbed and shot while meeting the public in her northern English constituency, dying in hospital shortly after. In a country where guns are strictly controlled (the murder weapon appears to have been homemade), a much-liked politician dying in this way seems fantastical, unreal.

There’s more to Britain’s shock than this horrific incident alone, however. The country has been on a knife-edge for months in the run-up to next week’s Brexit referendum, which will decide whether the U.K. will leave or remain in the European Union. Cox, a vocal pro-Remain advocate, was killed by a local man with links to U.S. neo-Nazi groups and, before attacking Cox, allegedly shouted either “put Britain first” or “Britain First”—the name of a racist, extreme-right political party campaigning, among other things, for Britain to leave the E.U. While some in the Leave camp have tried to paint Cox’s murder as the work of a mentally unstable loner and nothing more, the clear political background behind the attack has inevitably pushed a referendum campaign so far marked by anger and farce into the realms of tragedy.