Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 7 November 2017
It’s happened again: last weekend, an angry young man with a record of domestic violence murdered 26 people in a church in Texas. Before the killings, Devin Kelley sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, who had previously attended the church. She wasn’t there on Sunday, but Kelley fired indiscriminately - including at a baby aged 18 months.
Kelley had been discharged from the US air force for attacking his wife and child, and he had been arrested in the past for viciously beating a dog. His name has now been added to an infamous – and growing – list of killers who have a record of domestic violence, before escalating to mass murder.
Of course mass shootings are a very American phenomenon, enabled by easy access to guns. But exactly the same pattern is emerging in terrorist incidents in the US and Europe – and it should make us think very hard about how we respond to domestic violence.
These massacres are often described as ‘senseless’ but there’s no doubt that rage against family members is implicated in many mass killings. Research in the US, carried out by an organisation called Everytown for Gun Safety, found that 57 per cent of mass killings between 2009 and 2015 included a family member, spouse or former spouse among the victims.
In one of the most notorious cases in recent history, Adam Lanza shot his mother in the head before killing 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012. Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in 2015, had been accused of domestic violence by two of his three ex-wives.
Omar Mateen had a long history of domestic abuse before he murdered 49 people last year at a nightclub in Orlando. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who deliberately drove a lorry into pedestrians on the seafront in Nice, killing more than 80 people, used to rant about his wife until she left him two years earlier.
In one extraordinary case, pure misogyny was the cause. Elliott Rodger, a student dropout who murdered six people in southern California in 2014, left behind a video in which he boasted about being an ‘alpha male’ and raged at girls who refused to go out with him.
Here in the UK, a relative of Khalid Masood, who mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and stabbed a police officer to death in March this year, described how his wife had fled in terror after only three months of marriage.
Rachid Redouane, one of three men who carried out a similar attack at London Bridge in June, had reportedly abused his wife before she left him in January. The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, is said to have punched a female classmate in the head for wearing a short skirt.
How much evidence do we need? It’s clear that men who beat up their partners and children are much more dangerous than the general public realises – they pose a threat to total strangers, as well as their families.
It’s not so long since police and neighbours would react with a shrug of the shoulders, dismissing even noisy disturbances and desperate cries for help as ‘just a domestic’. But we know now that domestic violence can be a precursor to mass murder, whether the supposed motive is a personal grievance or loyalty to a terrorist organisation.
After the shootings in Texas at the weekend, the US air force admitted it didn’t warn the FBI about Devin Kelley’s record of domestic abuse, leaving him free to acquire guns and kill 26 people. The failure to understand that domestic violence is unlikely to be a one-off – that it might actually turn into lethal violence – is something no country can afford any more.
Men who commit violent assaults on women and children must be charged and punished – their victims need justice and other women they encounter need to be warned about a history of violence.
But the criminal justice system also needs to acknowledge the consequences of not helping women escape violent relationships. To put it bluntly, too many children are growing up in households where violence is normalised.
One of the things we know about domestic violence is that boys who witness it often become perpetrators when they’re older. Research on the background of boys who join teenage gangs in the UK’s big cities suggests that domestic abuse is a common factor – and a similar pattern is starting to emerge with young men who are groomed by terrorist organisations.
This should be a wake-up call. From Florida and Texas to Manchester, London and Paris, mass murder is one of the defining horrors of our age.
If we are going to have any chance of stopping it, we have to accept that it begins in the home. And we urgently need to prevent a habit of domestic violence being passed from fathers to sons.