Independent on Sunday, 11 January 2015
Murderers, like the Paris terrorists, are drawn to a toxic identity which equates masculinity with violence
In December 2012, a young man called Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and murdered 26 people. The killings ended when Lanza shot himself in the head, prompting an impassioned debate in the US about gun ownsership. But the feminist magazine Ms was struck by the absence of any analysis of the fact that mass shooters are almost always angry men. ‘Why won’t we talk about violence and masculinity in America?’ a headline asked.
I had a similar thought last week as I tried to make sense of the cold-blooded murders at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. It never occurred to me that the killers of 12 people would turn out to be women; sure enough, they were quickly identified as two brothers, Said abd Cherif Kouachi. The brothers claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda in Yemen and talked a lot of nonsense about ‘avenging’ the Prophet. But I couldn’t help feeling that they were doing this to feel important. They flattered themselves that they were adhering to some kind of military code, claiming: “We don’t kill women”, while ignoring the fact that they’d just murdered a female columnist in the Charlie Hebdo office.
Insignificant for most of their lives, unemployed or doing menial jobs, the only way these angry men could get attention was by picking up guns. It may be that we simply take for granted the fact that mass killings are almost always carried out by men, whether they’re jihadists or unpopular high-school students, but that is strange in itself. Is it based on an assumption that men are inherently violent? If it isn’t – and I don’t think we should assume any such thing – why aren’t we asking what factors disinhibit the social prohibitions against violence? Most men don’t go out and kill people, except in war, and we urgently need to know why these men are different.
One evening last week, a friend from a Middle Eastern country described to me how her nephew became involved with Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organisation. He felt rejected by his family after his father took two more wives, marginalising his mother. He drifted to Lebanon, started attending a mosque and listened to radical preachers. “I had no one,” he told my friend when she remonstrated with him. “They were my family.” Perhaps Islamist networks perform this role for men like the Kouachi brothers, who grew up in children’s homes.
Chérif Kouachi delivered pizzas and wanted to be a rap star before he was radicalised and ended up in prison. That seems to be where he met Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who died after a horrific siege in a Jewish supermarket in Paris on Friday. Coulibaly was a petty criminal before he adopted radical Islam, with a psychiatric report describing him as having an “immature and psychopathic personality”. After their release from prison, Coulibaly and Kouachi visited a well-known Islamist, Djamel Beghal, who was under house arrest in southern France. Beghal used to be based at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London when it was controlled by the notorious preacher Abu Hamza, who is alleged to have radicalised the petty criminal and would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid.
During the two sieges on Friday, Coulibaly said he “synchronised” his operation with the brothers (that military fantasy again) but they evidently forgot to synchronise their stories; in a phone call to a TV station, Coulibaly claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda’s rival terror organisation, the Islamic State.
The French authorities are looking for a woman described as Coulibaly’s former partner, Hayat Boumeddiene, who is a suspect in the shooting of a policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, in Paris on Thursday. But many mass killers are uncomfortable around assertive females, preferring to spend time with other men, and quite a few of them harbour resentful feelings towards women. Elliot Rodger, son of a second assistant director on The Hunger Games, murdered six people in California last May after making a video in which he ranted about his inability to get a girlfriend.
There is a pattern here of troubled men projecting their self-hatred on to other people: fellow students, women, novelists, journalists, Jews, Muslims. They display a sense of aggrieved entitlement which over-rides any possibility of empathy with their victims; acquiring an arsenal of Kalashnikovs and grenade-launchers offers a feeling of power which they seldom experience in their everyday lives. “Consider your man card re-issued”, read a sinister advertisement for a semi-automatic rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre.
Did the Kouachi brothers delude themselves that they were proving their manhood when they burst out of the print works on Friday afternoon, guns blazing, and died in a hail of bullets? The striking thing about such men is that they are drawn to a toxic form of identity which equates masculinity with violence.
At first sight, the puritanical form of Islam the Kouachis claimed as their motivation appears wildly at odds with popular culture, which encourages the consumption of alcohol, sex and consumer goods. But you don’t have to look far to see the link between masculinity and violence in rap music, movies and computer games; the mass killer Anders Breivik, who claimed to have been motivated by hatred of Muslims, claimed at his trial in Norway that he “trained” for the murders by playing violent computer games.
Angry men nurture grievances and look for causes. They are attracted to guns, a fact too many Americans refuse to recognise. In Europe, de-radicalisation programmes challenge Islamist ideology, but I suspect that inner rage, and a lack of stable masculine identity, come first. So it’s all the more astonishing that in the debates about the role played in the French attacks by Islam, colonialism and the Iraq war, I have yet to hear anyone talk about gender.
The message that urgently needs to emerge from this tragedy is that there’s nothing “manly” about shooting cartoonists, shoppers or a wounded police officer.