John W. McArthur is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and senior adviser to the UN Foundation.
Tomorrow would have been my friend Jo Cox's 42nd birthday. As the world now knows all too well, she was brutally murdered last week while meeting local constituents as a U.K. member of Parliament. For the countless people across the globe who knew Jo and her family, it has been extremely difficult and painful to make sense of what just happened.
While seeking to process events in my own head, some words of my long-passed father keep jumping to mind. He spent more than 20 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Cold War, as a fighter pilot and in other roles, and lost many of his friends to service-related causes before himself dying in his 60s. When I was growing up, my dad would say the same thing whenever he saw a public official do something particularly unethical or egregious. He would audibly mumble, "That's not what my friends died for."
In a wholly different context, and for a wholly new generation, I am trying to reconcile what my friend Jo Cox died for. I first met Jo (then Leadbeater) back in the early 2000s, when she helped lead Oxfam's global policy advocacy efforts. I was based at the UN, part of a small team trying to get the world's anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals off the ground. Jo and her colleagues would come by periodically to collect updates, share strategy suggestions, and explore ways to collaborate.
I don't remember the specific substance of any of those meetings, but I very much remember the way Jo made everyone feel. She was always warm and energetic, exuding a sharp mind and calm toughness. She was one of the people in the global network of policy advocates whom I was always happiest to see.
We stayed in touch as our respective life chapters evolved. She became director of the international Maternal Mortality Campaign, working closely with Sarah Brown, wife of then-U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In one of her many life achievements, Jo helped maternal survival make the leap from backwater niche issue to major priority for world leaders, as politicians like our own Prime Minister Stephen Harper took it up.
My favourite memory of Jo came during that period, around 2010, amid a visit to London. We met in the back of a dingy pub one afternoon and talked for hours about strategies for a global breakthrough on maternal health. She was savvy, determined, down-to-earth, and just plain fun as ever.
Later I watched with admiration from a distance as Jo ran for parliament in 2015. She won her seat easily while her Labour party took a broader thumping. Meanwhile her husband Brendan, himself an accomplished leader in global anti-poverty efforts, was gaining ever more prominence in the informal community of analysts and activists debating the global goals for sustainable development, ultimately adopted at the UN this past September. Together the couple embodied the spirit of a life in service.
So the trauma of Jo's death hits many people on many levels. It's the murder of a politician doing the admirably prosaic work of meeting with constituents. It's the killing of a mother of two young children who has thousands of loyal friends around the world. It's the loss of one of a generation's best leaders who walked the talk of public service. It's an attack on the values of people working to improve global co-operation everywhere. Indeed Jo was a leading light advocating on behalf of humanity as a common collective – as is Brendan, whose public comments in recent days reflect an extraordinary commitment to love over hate, no matter the duress.
Jo's life will be honoured tomorrow in many cities around the world, including Ottawa. Her family has chosen the hashtag #MoreInCommon as the theme, in reference to Jo's maiden parliamentary speech, where she asserted that "we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than the things that divide us."
So far, that's my best answer to my dad's prompt. Tragically, painfully, needlessly – that's the message my friend died for.