On the day after the murder of Jo Cox in 2016, stunned politicians on both sides of the Brexit referendum campaign fell silent. Cox was a member of the British parliament who favored remaining inside the European Union and campaigned about Syria; her assassin was both mentally ill and an extremist who scoured the Internet for white supremacist material. He shouted “Britain first” as he shot and stabbed her. Feelings were riding high, the referendum debate had been emotional, and everyone agreed, in honor of Cox, to stop campaigning for three days.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the length of Pawel Adamowicz’s tenure as mayor of Gdansk, Poland. He was mayor for more than 20 years. The piece also incorrectly said that Polish police refused to investigate the far-right group that published an “obituary” of Adamowicz. It was state officials who have refused to prosecute the group.
Much later, we learned that one group of people did not, in fact, remain silent. Within hours of Cox’s death, the operatives of the Brexit campaign quietly resumed their Facebook advertising efforts. Targeted ads promoting Brexit were sent to voters, as planned, even during the period of alleged silence. Politics did not stop.
Politics did not stop in the wake of another political murder, either. On Sunday night, a man with a criminal record, both mentally ill and politically motivated, stabbed Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk; afterward, the assassin shouted that he had been “tortured” by Poland’s main opposition party during its previous years in government. The attack had been carefully planned: It took place precisely at the climax of a charity concert, just as fireworks were about to begin. The concert is part of a series organized by Jerzy Owsiak, an outspoken liberal music promoter who has, for years, been the subject of a virulent hate campaign promoted by Poland’s nativist ruling party and, since they won the 2015 election, by state television. One recent satirical program depicted him hoarding bank notes marked with the star of David.
Adamowicz, who I am happy to declare was a political colleague of my husband and an old friend, has also been the subject of a virulent hate campaign promoted by Poland’s nativist ruling party, first in their party press and, since the 2015 election, repeatedly on state television. Mayor for more than 20 years, recently reelected and very popular in his city, Adamowicz was also an outspoken liberal — he created a shelter for refugees and supported gay rights.
As a result, he was threatened, hounded and falsely prosecuted by the state for corruption. The same satirical state television program that smeared Owsiak has recently depicted him as a thief, surrounded by stolen money. Infamously, one far-right group wrote his “obituary,” along with the “obituaries” of several other liberal mayors; state officials refused to prosecute them. A quick Internet search produces dozens of attacks on him as a traitor or as “un-Polish.” Even in a country where social media heaves with nasty commentary, including some apparently posted by Russian trolls, the demonization of Adamowicz was exceptional.
Adamowicz died of his wounds on Monday. His family, like Cox’s family, asked that the murder not be politicized any further. The president and prime minister seemed to comply and issued condolences. But within hours of his death, the state television station that they control was already politicizing it, even deliberately distorting the story of his murder. The assassin’s shouted comments about the opposition party were left out of the program; the far right’s death threats against Adamowicz were not mentioned. Instead, blame was heaped on the security firm that worked at the concert, on Owsiak, again — and on Adamowicz’s liberal colleagues. There was no apology for the dozens and dozens of past news episodes vilifying Adamowicz and the charity concerts, no reflection whatsoever. This was far beyond the cynicism of the Brexit campaigners, who carried on with their stealth Facebook advertising plans: This was a coldblooded attempt to manipulate the story.
Of course, the political roots of this murder, like the Cox murder, are murky: I’ve written before that it is impossible to pick apart the strands of psychopathy, irrationality, fanaticism, cold calculation and ideology that go into a political murder. Each case is different; the “causes” are always multiple. But it is also not possible to separate these crimes from the environment in which they take place. Madmen choose their targets based on what they read and hear. Why would they not?
And if the political roots are murky, the political impact is not. Just a few moments of reflection from government media could have helped calm emotions in Poland. On the other side of the political spectrum, after all, there were marches, candles and some self-examination. But it seems those who are producing the most hateful stories cannot afford to stop: If they do, they will lose momentum, they will give people time to think — and then they will be blamed.
It also seems that those who are conducting campaigns of lies and vilification cannot afford to show an instant’s self-doubt or sorrow, either. If they do, there might be questions, the spell will be broken, and the false pictures they have constructed will fall apart. That’s why there won’t be any apologies in Poland for the smears of Adamowicz and Owsiak, not for the next few days, not for the next few months, not for the next few years.