By now, most people have seen the interview with Sitora Yusufiy, wherein she testifies about the severe abuse she experienced during her marriage to Omar Mateen, perpetrator of the Orlando nightclub massacre. A number of sources, including the New York Times, have pointed out that many such mass murderers have a prior history of domestic violence. Cedric Ford, who killed 17 people in his workplace and Man Haron Monis, who held a group of hostages in a Sydney café, killing two and wounding others, had previously been accused of spousal abuse. In fact, Monis was out on bail at the time of his attack, accused of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, among numerous other charges related to sexual and indecent assault.
Rolling Stone writer Soraya Chemaly believes that, in such circumstances, innocent victims of domestic violence are “canaries in the coal mine for understanding public terror.” She shares the belief with many advocates of women’s rights, that a man who is violent towards his own family should also be considered a serious concern in terms of the safety of the broader community. This is not to assume that all men who abuse their family members go on to commit mass murder. It does however question the lack of serious attention paid to domestic or intimate violence.
A study by Everytown for Gun Safety recently observed “a noteworthy connection between mass shooting incidents and domestic or family violence.” In fact, out of 133 mass shootings that occurred in the United States between January 2009 and July 2015, 57% of them targeted a spouse, a former spouse, or another family member and 16% of the mass shooters had been formally charged with domestic violence at some stage in their past. “Between 2009 and 2012, 40% of mass shootings started with a shooter targeting his girlfriend, wife or ex-wife.” The Washington Post reported that Omar Mateen “…had no record of previous hate crimes” but Soraya Chemaly asks the question, why is gender-based violence not considered a hate crime, given that it is often grounded in misogyny and hatred?
The answer lies in the way that society is frequently divided into two main, gendered spheres: The public sphere and the private sphere. The public sphere, including paid work, politics, economics and business, is still generally considered to comprise of men’s activities, while the private sphere is commonly connected to women, as it involves unpaid work, child care and domestic activities. The private sphere is less regulated and less protected by laws than the public sphere. This imaginary divide is often cited as the reason why domestic forms of terror, or violence which is exacted primarily onto the bodies of women, are not treated as seriously as public acts of terror. From a basic human rights perspective, renowned feminist Dr Catherine McKinnon argues that crimes against women, such as in cases where women are beaten by their husbands, are not recorded as crimes against humanity because they happen to women and, only very exceptionally, to men. To clarify her point, she suggests that, in a situation where a woman is tortured in a prison cell in Argentina, it would be recorded as a human rights violation because the same circumstances also occur in the lives of men. In contrast, humanity is not violated when the torture occurs in the private sphere, as in a woman being tortured by her husband. For example, if Monis’s abuse against his ex-wife had been considered ‘terrorism’ or a serious violation of basic human rights, would he have been out on bail on the occasion that he held hostage and murdered innocent people in a Sydney café?
Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman points out that police are fully aware of the danger of being called out to situations of domestic violence as they are statistically the most likely circumstances in which a police officer will be injured. This alone is evidence of the link between private behaviour and public behaviour. Domestic violence is often utilised to enforce the stereotype of traditional gender roles. In the case of Omar Mateen, whether his attack is attributed to his religious beliefs, homophobia or secret shame in regards to his own sexuality, his public violence directed at the LGBTQ community was also carried out based on beliefs around traditional stereotyped gender roles. Furthermore, Paul Gill who studies the behaviour of terrorists told the New York Times that violence is a learned psychological skill. If this is the case, could we assume that committing public acts of violence becomes easier if it is first practiced at home?
There are numerous avenues to explore in relation to this topic, such as the ease with which abusive men are able to acquire guns in the United States or the reasons as to why domestic forms of terrorism often go unreported or even the fact that men are also victims of this form of violence. However, I want to end with a brief look at domestic violence in the United Kingdom. White Ribbon Scotland reports that 45% of women in the UK have experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. However, as in the United States, there are still issues with inadequate punishments for domestic abuse (just one example of this can be found here). A perpetrator who kills a spouse, in general, receives a shorter sentence than would take place in relation to a homicide at the hands of a stranger. The UK has signed but not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
It’s time that we put an end to the private/public divide in relation to acts of violence. It’s time that we strengthened our communities by addressing intimate forms of terrorism with the same severity as public forms of terrorism.