The Tie That Binds Mass Shootings

When violence is a means for dominance, men will continue to murder.

A few years ago I was part of a group of community members who were convened by the Police Chief to help put together a federal grant to prevent gun violence in the city. Our first meeting consisted of officers sharing police data about the issue and current efforts that were already underway. Buried in the statistics was the fact that over half the shootings in the city were a result of domestic violence. That wasn’t a huge surprise to me because, as a result of another project I was involved with, I knew that over a third of police calls for service involve a domestic situation. As the meeting unfolded, all of that was completely ignored for a focus on how to deal with young people (mostly men of color) who were involved in gangs. When I tried to spur some discussion about domestic violence, I was immediately shut down. Because women are overwhelmingly the victims in domestic violence situations, it was one of the most notable times in my career when the force of a patriarchal approach was on display.

That is why I think that Emily Crockett has written one of the most important articles in response to the shooting in Orlando last weekend. Of course it is important that the shooter targeted a gay nightclub and that he claimed allegiance to ISIS. But this is also important to note that his wife said that her family had to “literally rescue” her after four months of marriage due to his violence against her. Crockett explains the connection this way:

One of the best predictors of future violent behavior, researchers say, is past violent behavior. And a crucial warning sign — one too often ignored — is domestic violence against intimate partners and other family members.

These innocent victims are the “canaries in the coal mine for understanding public terror,” as feminist writer Soraya Chemaly put it for Rolling Stone.

“Men who commit violence rehearse and perfect it against their families first,” wrote Pamela Shifman and Salamishah Tillet in a New York Times op-ed in February. “Women and children are target practice, and the home is the training ground for these men’s later actions.”

Connecting the dots between domestic violence and terrorism is something that Riane Eisler did years ago. As I was reeling from emotions in the aftermath of 9/11, one of the first things I did was re-read her book The Chalice and the Blade. She documents that archeology has found a reliance on partnership (symbolized by the chalice) during the Paleolithic era that eventually gave way to dominance (symbolized by the blade) as the organizing principle for human relationships. With dominance comes hierarchy imposed by violence. These are the roots on which both Abrahamic religions are based. Here is how Eisler summarized the connection in 2004:

Terrorism and chronic warfare are responses to life in societies in which the only perceived choices are dominating or being dominated. These violent responses are characteristic of cultures where this view of relations is learned early on through traditions of coercion, abuse, and violence in parent-child and gender relations.

It’s not coincidental that throughout history the most violently despotic and warlike societies have been those in which violence, or the threat of violence, is used to maintain domination of parent over child and man over woman. It’s not coincidental that the 9/11 terrorists came from cultures where women and children are terrorized into submission. Nor is it coincidental that Afghanistan under the Taliban in many ways resembled the European Middle Ages—when witchburnings, public drawings and quarterings, despotic rulers, brutal violence against children, and male violence against women were considered moral and normal. Neither is it coincidental that, in the U.S. today, those pushing “crusades” against “evil enemies” oppose equal rights for women and advocate harshly punitive childrearing.

This is the tie that binds all of the mass shootings we’ve been witnessing in this country – and why the shooters are invariably male. It is all rooted in the patriarchal notion of dominance imposed by violence.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.