Daily Telegraph, Friday 21 June 2019
Angry men don’t just wear jeans and carry placards. Sometimes they wear dinner jackets, leaping into action when a woman does something incredibly offensive, like walking past them. It happened last night when the Foreign Office minister Mark Field grabbed a climate change protester at Mansion House, pushing the woman against a pillar and grasping her by the neck as he frogmarched her out of the room.
The incident has caused widespread shock. So has the response of some Tory MPs, including Peter Bottomley and Johnny Mercer, who have made the situation even worse by defending his actions. Field has apologised and referred himself to the Cabinet Office, a bureaucratic device that is not likely to satisfy his critics, although he has now been suspended as a minister. It has also been reported that police are investigating reports of an assault made against Field.
Theresa May famously put tackling violence against women at the heart of her premiership, yet it took hours for her spokeswoman – and not the prime minister herself – to describe the video as ‘very concerning’. It’s clear from other footage that the protesters were peaceful and already being dealt with by Mansion House security, who didn’t see any need to use force. Field watches the woman approach and no one sitting near him shows any alarm, suggesting that they’ve already realised that the protest, no matter how annoying, doesn’t pose a threat
So why does he leap to his feet and slam her against a pillar? It’s not even as if she makes any attempt to resist. And why, when something so shocking happened in full sight, did no one think to intervene? Didn’t they see Field’s face, contorted with rage, as he restrained a woman armed with nothing more threatening than a mobile phone and a sheaf of papers? I suppose we ought to be grateful that no one started a chant of ‘lock her up’ as some Trump supporters did, reviving an old chant against Hillary Clinton, at a rally in Florida earlier this week.
Let’s be clear about this: we have all encountered men like Mark Field, furious beyond reason and so full of entitlement that they won’t even try to control themselves. Field claims his reaction was ‘instinctive’ but would he have been so quick to lay hands on a burly male protester? Most women who’ve seen the video will instinctively recognise his assumption that he’s an important man who doesn’t have to answer for his actions. In the age of smartphones with cameras, let’s hope that assumption – age-old, in certain quarters – turns out to be wrong.
There’s too little recognition of how much time and effort women routinely put into avoiding angry, self-important men. We come across them at home, at work, on crowded buses and trains. Avoiding them is second nature, something we do without even being fully conscious of it; we’ve all encountered men who take the seat next to us, try and strike up a conversation and get angry when we don’t respond. Last week, on a tube train, I had to avoid eye contact with a man in an expensive suit, obviously drunk, who banged on the train wall and shouted ‘You’re rubbish’ when female passengers didn’t react to his overtures.
It’s no good saying that such incidents are one-offs. They’re not, and they’re fed by a political climate where threats and actual violence against women are so frequent as to have become unremarkable. They’re so normalised that a man who joked about raping a Labour MP, Jess Phillips, was able to stand as a UKIP candidate in last month’s European parliament elections. You think it’s funny to video yourself talking about whether you’d rape a female politician? No problem, step this way, sir.
Civility is important, even towards people we don’t agree with. I’m not amused by people throwing milkshakes at politicians, and I think Jo Brand was wrong to joke about throwing battery acid. Protesters from Greenpeace disrupting Philip Hammond’s Mansion House speech may have seemed like an eye-catching stunt but I’m not sure what it would have achieved, had Field not reacted in the manner he did. In the event, the headline news from the evening wasn’t climate change but the spectacle of a Foreign Office minister grabbing a woman like an angry man who’s been queue-jumped on a bus.
This episode should be a wake-up call for politicians and commentators who believed even for a nanosecond that Field’s behaviour was excusable. An MP manhandling (the word is apt) a woman who posed no threat should be a sacking offence in a culture that values women. Angry men have had their own way for too long: we see you and we’ve had enough, no matter how well you dress or where you work.
Sunday Times, 30 June 2019
Kate Atkinson’s return to crime fiction, after a series of highly regarded literary novels, is deceptively light in tone. Big Sky (Doubleday £20) marks the return of her wayward private investigator, Jackson Brodie, now living in a village in Yorkshire. Brodie’s latest case, following the husband of a gift-shop owner to collect evidence of an affair, isn’t exactly absorbing. But it gives him time to get to know his teenage son, left with him for the summer by his former partner while she films her latest television series.
Atkinson’s wry commentary on her characters is a delight, but a series of sinister events, including a near-death from drowning, weaves a growing sense of menace into the novel. From the outset, there are heavy hints that foreign women are being trafficked, leaving the reader desperate for someone to intervene. Brodie’s involvement is indirect, via a woman who believes she’s being followed, but the denouement in an abandoned mental hospital plunges him into a scene of complete horror. The novel is a masterclass in what can be done with crime fiction, brilliantly using the form to expose what Atkinson bleakly describes as “one more battle in the war against women”.
The death of a teenager in the grounds of an abandoned house looks like a simple case of rape and murder in Jo Spain’s engrossing The Boy Who Fell (Quercus £13.99). Luke Connolly was pushed from an upstairs window and the Dublin police already have a suspect in custody. But when DCI Tom Reynolds is asked to take a fresh look at the case, it begins to seem as though the alleged attacker has been set up: he’s gay, mixed race and unable to afford an expensive lawyer. Spain’s novel is a solid police procedural, showing how even an apparently watertight case can be demolished by painstaking detective work, but it is also about the impact of prejudice and inequality on the justice system.
Vicky Newham’s novels are set in east London, an area that is almost a living history of the UK’s immigrant communities. Her detective, Maya Rahman, grew up in the area and went to the school that featured in Newham’s accomplished debut, Turn a Blind Eye. Her second, Out of the Ashes (HQ £12.99), begins with a catastrophic explosion in Brick Lane, destroying an upmarket takeaway run by a Lithuanian couple. A murder inquiry is launched when two bodies are found in the ruins, but then anti-semitic signs appear in the street, evidently aimed at an elderly Jewish widow. Newham’s plots are original and disturbing, revealing aspects of Britain that don’t often appear in contemporary crime fiction.
The extraordinary The Reunion by Guillaume Musso, translated by Frank Wynne (Weidenfeld £14.99), has sold more than 500,000 copies in France. It’s a hectic tale in which a successful novelist, returning to the Riviera from New York for a school reunion, confesses to murder; a quarter of a century ago, the body of his victim was hidden in the wall of the school gym, which is now scheduled for demolition. Feverish, complicated and occasionally veering towards farce, the novel still manages to exert a strange pull.
Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 11 June 2019
Imagine becoming the victim of a serious crime. You go to the police, show them injuries and other evidence, and cooperate with a gruelling criminal investigation. You hope for and expect justice – but then you’re told the attacker won’t be prosecuted. This is what is happening to 24 out of every 25 women who report a rape in this country, according to women’s groups who have launched a legal action against the Crown Prosecution Service.
How could this possibly represent justice? The women’s organisations point to the undeniable fact that the rape prosecution rate has collapsed, with only four per cent of reported cases actually getting to court. It is happening at a time when more rapes than ever are being reported to the police, up by 173 per cent between 2014 and 2018.
These women rightly expect redress from the state – but they’re very unlikely to get it. The failure to prosecute in so many cases is especially worrying at a time when I’ve heard police and prosecutors say that perpetrators are becoming more violent, leaving more victims with physical injuries. Yet the number of rape cases leading to charges and a trial is down by 44 per cent, risking a catastrophic loss of confidence in the criminal justice system.
Who would put themselves through a hugely intrusive criminal investigation, involving handing over mobile phones and providing access to medical and school records, if they knew that at the end of the process no one is going to be charged? Even more to the point, what message is being sent to men accused of rape if so few of them will ever see the inside of a courtroom?
Unless we believe that almost every woman who reports a rape is lying – an unlikely and indeed insulting proposition – the only credible alternative is that thousands of sexual predators know that they have nothing to fear from the criminal justice system. There’s simply no barrier, no deterrent, to stop them doing the same thing again.
So why is this happening? The women’s organisations says it’s because prosecutors are ‘second-guessing’ the prejudices of juries instead of making decisions on the merits of each individual case. The CPS denies it, saying that decisions to prosecute are based solely on a series of legal tests and ‘we always seek to prosecute where there is sufficient evidence to do so’.
But concern about the collapse in the prosecution rate has been growing since last autumn, when anonymous sources told the Guardian that the CPS was encouraging prosecutors to drop ‘weak’ cases. Lawyers for the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which is bring the legal challenge, claim there has been an unannounced change of policy by the CPS, which they accuse of dropping cases they think will play badly with juries.
‘Our society has agreed that really serious allegations with strong evidence should be tested in court,’ says Sarah Green, Co-director of EVAW. ‘So it can’t be right that our independent prosecution service has covertly made a significant change which we believe is resulting in anonymous decision-makers discarding cases that should be heard in court’.
Women’s organisations argue that many of the discontinued cases, far from being weak, contain ‘compelling’ evidence. They have compiled a dossier of 21 cases that didn’t get to court, including that of a woman raped at knifepoint and held prisoner for two days by her boyfriend. The CPS dropped the case on the grounds that WhatsApp messages she sent to placate her attacker, who was known by the police to be violent, could be misconstrued by a jury.
The women’s organisations are hoping to crowd-fund a judicial review, arguing that the policy change discriminates against women and girls, and represents a significant failure to protect their human rights. It is a route increasingly being used by lawyers representing victims of male violence, who feel that legal action is the only means they have of achieving justice. The Supreme Court has already upheld a High Court ruling that the police have a duty to investigate serious violence against women, and can be held accountable in the courts if they fail in that duty.
But the question remains as to why it is being left to victims of sexual violence to enforce the law, with all the costs and effort that involves. A leading lawyer, Jolyon Maugham QC, gets to the heart of the matter when he says that ‘the failure of the criminal justice system effectively to deter rapists is a genuine scandal’.
To be clear, it is not just existing victims of sexual violence who are being let down. A system that fails to convict the vast majority of rapists is, in effect, sending a message to sexual predators. Do we really want to live in a country where there is virtual impunity for rapists?
One Scotland: First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls
A couple of weeks ago, during an examination before a minor medical procedure, the doctor glanced down any my notes. ‘You don’t look your age,’ she said, looking me up and down as though I might be hiding a bath chair. I’m sure it was intended as a compliment but my heart sank, as it always does when someone unwittingly reveals negative assumptions about age. I could almost feel her attitude towards me changing, as though I had won a prize in a contest I hadn’t even entered. Look at the healthy older woman!
It is of course possible, as the American feminist Gloria Steinem pointed out more than three decades ago, that we do look our age – it’s other people’s assumptions that are wrong. Steinem got so sick of being told how marvellous she looked at the apparently advanced age of 50 that she threw a ‘this is what 50 looks like’ party in New York. Thirty years later, she did it again with a ‘this is what 80 looks like’ party in Philadelphia. But the question that’s still being asked about Steinem – how does she look so good? – suggests that people just don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes.
There’s a trap here, for any woman over the age of 40, and especially for women whose jobs place them in the public eye. Either we conform to expectations about ageing, leading to often hurtful comparisons with our younger selves, or we’re treated as some kind of exhibit. ‘Look how she’s aged’ or ‘Isn’t she amazing for her age?’ are not attractive choices for women, not least because we find ourselves being played off against each other.
A whole range of variables – genes, health, lifestyle and, crucially, access to resources – affect how women and men age. But men in their 60s and 70s are still defined by their experience, careers and achievements. Women, no matter how famous or successful, are primarily viewed through the prism of their birth date. When Hillary Clinton, then aged 69, ran for President in 2016 against Donald Trump, who is a year older, questions were asked about her age and fitness for office, not his. The former Vice-President, Joe Biden, has entered the running to be the Democrats’ next Presidential candidate at the age of 76. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll be throwing a ‘this is what 80 looks like’ party in just over three years’ time.
Obviously public policy must take into account the possible effects of ageing, making sure that those who need it have access to high-quality health and social care. The Scottish government’s framework for older people, published a couple of months ago, strikes the right balance, recognising that individuals can find themselves vulnerable and marginalised as they get older – but also acknowledging that many of us are living longer, healthier lives. The problem is that public perceptions remain wide of the mark, lumping everyone over the age of 60 together in a way that has a particularly damaging impact on women.
In our everyday lives, older women are no more defined or limited by our age than men are. What we do have to struggle with every single day is the laughably outdated assumption that chronological age is the most important thing about us. That doctor, congratulating me on my relatively youthful appearance, knew nothing about all the things I do, and she made no attempt to find out. Instead of changing her outdated assumptions, she decided I must be an exception, an experience that will strike a chord with many older women. Maybe things will have changed by the time she finds herself joining the massed ranks of diverse, active, innovative older women – but it’s going to take an enormous effort to get us there. Hashtag #NoException, anyone?
If you’d like to share your experiences of challenging damaging stereotypes, please look at the website of the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls.. Its current spotlight is on older women – and you can join the debate by using the ‘Have your say’ screen.
Daily Telegraph, Friday 7 June 2019
The long-term impact of domestic abuse is still poorly understood, both by the public and the criminal justice system. For decades, the courts have tended to deal harshly with women who kill their partners, which is why the case of Sally Challen is being hailed as a ground-breaking legal decision.
Mrs Challen was convicted of the murder of her husband Richard at the family home in Surrey in August 2010, and given a life sentence. Earlier this year, her conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal but she faced a retrial for murder at the beginning of next month. Now, after months of uncertainty, prosecutors have accepted her plea of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, avoiding the need for a another trial.
It is a victory for her sons, David and James, who have long campaigned for their mother’s release. They say she endured decades of humiliating psychological abuse before she attacked her husband at the former marital home in Claygate.
Mrs Challen, who is 65, has never denied killing her husband and she has already spent almost ten years in prison. But her case is being seen as a test of judicial attitudes to coercive control, a form of emotional abuse that only became a criminal offence in December 2015. The significance of the outcome was underlined by the shadow equalities minister, Carolyn Harris, who described it as a ‘landmark case for victims of coercive control’.
The defence argued that Richard Challen had subjected his wife to decades of psychological abuse, sleeping with other women and visiting brothels. The couple separated in 2009, but Mrs Challen was said to be emotionally dependent on her husband and sought a reconciliation. When she discovered he was seeing another woman, she hit him more than 20 times with a hammer as he ate lunch at the kitchen table. After the killing, she drove 70 miles to Beachy Head in Sussex where she planned to kill herself, but was coaxed back from the cliff edge.
In February, the Appeal Court was presented with fresh evidence, including a psychiatric report that concluded Mrs Challen was suffering from an ‘adjustment disorder’ at the time of the killing. It was told that she had two mental disorders and heard evidence that her condition was likely to have been made worse by her husband’s behaviour.
In an impact statement read to the court, James Challen was clear that the brothers had lost their father and did not seek to justify their mother’s actions. But he insisted that ‘she ‘does not deserve to be punished further’. Following acceptance of her manslaughter plea, Mrs Challen’s was given a sentence of nine years and four months, allowing her to be released on account of the time she has already served.
The hearing at the Old Bailey coincides with publication of a report pointing to a link between domestic abuse and mental illness – and how often it is being missed. The study, which is one of the first to examine the impact of abuse on mental health, found that women who have been abused by a partner are three times more likely to suffer depression and anxiety. They are also more likely to suffer from other, more severe conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, also suggests that opportunities to spot domestic abuse are being missed by the healthcare system. Only 0.25 per cent of women on the GPs’ lists used in the study reported abuse, even though it’s believed that one in four women will experience it in their lifetime. The failure to identify and record abuse has implications for victims’ mental health but It is also a significant omission in terms of criminal trials, where a defendant’s medical history could provide crucial evidence.
That was the case in Mrs Challen’s appeal, which referred to the change in the law in 2015. For the first time, it was recognised that domestic abuse does not always involve physical harm, acknowledging that other forms of abuse – withholding money, denying access to friends, issuing threats and belittling victims – cause long-term psychological damage. There have been relatively few convictions, suggesting that police and prosecutors are slow to use the new law, but the Challen case is a wake-up call for the criminal justice system.
David Challen said as much as he prepared to leave the Old Bailey with his mother on Friday afternoon. ’Our story has become the landmark case society needs to recognise the true severity of coercive control’, he tweeted. Campaigners hope he is right – and that his family’s nine-year ordeal will lead to greater compassion for other victims of this insidious form of abuse.
Daily Telegraph, Thursday 23 May 2019
Home can be a dangerous place. Every week, two women are killed by current or former partners, and the number of domestic homicides in London tripled last year to 29. But there’s another connection between domestic violence and murder that doesn’t appear in official figures. Most terrorists – and indeed most of the men responsible for mass shootings in the US – have a history of abusing women and children.
I’ve spent a year researching the backgrounds of the perpetrators of fatal attacks on strangers in the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US. Some claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamist organisations such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, while others were followers of right-wing ideologies. How much they actually know about these organisations is another matter; two British men who were preparing to travel to Syria to join ISIS knew so little about the ‘caliphate’ that they ordered books on Islam, including Islam for Dummies, from Amazon. The Nice truck attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had shown little interest in Islam until a few weeks before he murdered 86 people and injured more than 450.
What these men are interested in is violence. Robert Dear Jnr, an evangelical Christian who murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, had previously been investigated in relation to a rape, accused of domestic abuse by two of his former wives, and was reported to the police by a neighbour who spotted him peering into her bedroom. The rape charge was dropped and the only convictions Dear had were for driving offences, allowing him to buy four semi-automatic weapons.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Terrorism is a form of male violence, just like rape and domestic abuse, and we know that it doesn’t stay in neat categories. Men with repeat convictions for beating up family members often have convictions for other forms of assault, including attacks on police and prison officers. They don’t ‘keep it in the family’ – and a small but significant number burst onto a public stage with catastrophic consequences, as we saw in London and Manchester in 2017.
What is surprising is the fact that this connection has been overlooked by police and counter-terrorism agencies. At the end of 2017, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Anderson QC, published an interim report on three of that year’s fatal attacks in the UK. It offered revealing insights into MI5’s thinking, drawing on a mass of previously unpublished research into the backgrounds of known terrorists. Domestic violence wasn’t mentioned, yet I’ve found dozens of cases in which wives, girlfriends, children, mothers and even mothers-in-law suffered years of abuse before the perpetrators went on to kill total strangers.
The Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks were all carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse. No doubt Darren Osborne, a right-wing extremist who ranted in a pub about killing Muslims before he drove a hired van into worshippers in north London, would have regarded the Westminster Bridge terrorist Khalid Masood as his sworn enemy. Yet they had strikingly similar backgrounds: Osborne was a career criminal who was known to neighbours in Cardiff as a ‘shouty’ man who verbally abused his family in the street. He had dozens of convictions, including one in 2003 for actual bodily harm against his female partner, with whom he had four children. He had shown no interest at all in right-wing ideology until she threw him out of the family home in Cardiff shortly before the attack.
Masood likewise had a long criminal record. The mother of his two eldest children left him following ‘ongoing domestic abuse’ around the time he was sent to prison for slashing a man’s face with a knife. He then converted to Islam and married a young Muslim woman, who endured such abuse at his hands that she ran away from the marriage after only three months. At the time of the Westminster Bridge attack, Masood is believed to have been separated from his second wife, who described him as ‘controlling and angry’ at the inquest into his victims. She also said he was a habitual user of steroids, another common factor among the perpetrators of recent terrorist outrages.
‘The first victim of an extremist or terrorist is the woman in his own home,’ confirmed Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor in the north-west of England, when I interviewed him for my new book. Afzal is famously the lawyer who prosecuted members of the Rochdale gang who ‘groomed’ and raped under-age girls, sending the ringleader to prison for 19 years. ‘They would rather believe it was driven by politics than what it was really driven by,’ Afzal said when we discussed the Manchester Arena bombing, an attack we both recognised as driven by deep-seated misogyny.
Five years before the bomber set out to murder teenage girls at an Ariane Grande concert, he punched a teenage girl in the head for wearing a short skirt – an assault for which he was never charged. Salman Abedi wasn’t even referred to Channel, the strand of the Prevent programme that exists to deal with individuals showing signs of radicalisation. MI5 didn’t know about Abedi’s history of misogyny and violence against women when they began to investigate him as a potential terrorist two years later.
The web of male violence extends much further than we realise. And when it comes to terrorism, we’ve been blind to the obvious – that the perpetrators are angry, aggrieved men who pose a risk to their own families long before they pick up a knife or strap on a suicide belt. Living in an atmosphere where angry scenes and blows are a daily occurrence desensitises them to the effects of abuse; they’re practising at home, lowering the threshold that deters most people from committing acts of violence. Some of them start off as victims, growing up with violent fathers or step-fathers before they begin abusing women themselves. But domestic abuse is creating a pool of volatile, hyper-vigilant men who are far more susceptible than the rest of us to propaganda that appears to ‘legitimise’ violence.
And there are thousands of them: at the end of 2017, MI5 revealed that well over 500 counter-terrorism investigations were under way, involving more than 3,000 individuals who might be planning an attack, plus another 20,000 who had been investigated but were no longer believed to pose an active threat. There’s every reason to think the figure is higher now, as more right-wing plots are uncovered and ‘foreign fighters’ attempt to return home following the collapse of ISIS. It’s impossible to monitor every single one of these individuals day and night. ‘But you shouldn’t have to,’ Afzal told me. ‘You already know which ones to target by flagging up violence against women as a high-risk factor.’
Terrorism isn’t an enigma. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it has the same origins as other forms of male violence; misogyny and histories of abuse almost always lurk beneath the rationalisations of religion or politics. If only we recognised this fact, and started looking closely at suspects with a history of abusing their families, we might be able to stop the next terrorist attack before it happens – and save lives.
Sunday Times, 19 May 2019
UnHerd.com, Thursday 16 May 2019
Most of us know toxic masculinity when we see it. It’s the bloke in the car park, ranting at his wife as she struggles to load the shopping. It’s the football fan, face contorted with rage as he yells (often racist) abuse at the opposing side’s star player. It crosses lines of wealth and class: in 2017, it took charge of the White House when a reality TV star who had been accused of rape by his first wife – who had boasted on videotape about sexually assaulting women – was inaugurated as President of the United States.
Toxic masculinity didn’t damage Donald Trump’s chances, showing that millions of people still respond positively – or at least indifferently – to the near-parodic version of masculinity on display at his rallies.
Such behaviour, which takes traditionally masculine traits and exaggerates them to disastrous effect, isn’t innate to men, and is rejected by a growing number of them. But when it’s sanctioned at such a high level, we shouldn’t be surprised if individuals further down the food chain copy it and make similar assumptions about how they are entitled to behave.
The UK, like many modern democracies, has a raft of laws that commit our society to sex equality. But the way people actually treat each other in private is another matter. Domestic abuse is widespread, suggesting that toxic masculinity taken to extremes continues to define and distort many intimate relationships.
At the same time, our understanding of the phenomenon has expanded: since 2015, the law has recognised non-physical forms of domestic abuse, such as keeping women short of money and ‘gaslighting’, a type of psychological manipulation that encourages self-doubt.
What’s gone underreported is the relationship between domestic violence and murder statistics. Men do become victims of domestic abuse, but they’re far more likely to be killed by strangers; fully half of female murder victims are killed by a current or former partner, compared to only 3% of male victims. Two women die at the hands of an intimate partner every week, according to official figures.
A significant proportion of those deaths involve ‘over-killing’ – the use of much greater force than is needed to kill the victim. It featured in two-fifths of cases recorded by the Femicide Census in 2017, including one where a woman was struck 40 times by an axe and another where the victim was stabbed 175 times. The following year, when the public conversation was all about knife crime, the number of domestic homicides in London more than tripled to 29.
It’s a depressing fact that there isn’t outcry over these murders, harking back to a time when violence in the home was dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. It’s worrying, too: it’s gradually becoming clear that the impact of such high levels of anger, aggression and assaults isn’t limited to the private sphere.
In the US, where mass shootings without an obvious political motive are common, the link between what happens behind closed doors and acts of public violence has been showing up in research for some time. One of the best-known studies, carried out by an NGO called Everytown for Gun Safety, found that the perpetrator killed an intimate partner or family member in 57% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2014. In many of these cases, the victim had suffered abuse for years.
Devin Patrick Kelley, who had convictions for violence against his first wife and his step-son, was trying to kill the mother of his estranged second wife when he opened fire in a church in Texas in 2017, killing 26 people. Nine days later, Kevin Janson Neal riddled his wife’s body with bullets and hid her under the floorboards before rushing out of their home in rural California and murdering four more victims. The young man accused of killing 14 students and three teachers at his old school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 was well-known to the police because his adoptive mother called 911 so many times, pleading for help when he verbally and physically abused her.
Violence in the home doesn’t always stay in the home – and a similar pattern has begun to emerge in relation to terrorism. People are surprised when I tell them that all four fatal attacks in the UK in 2017 were carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse; they’re even more taken aback when I explain that the same background turns up in relation to terrorist attacks in France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Australia. That’s because the public thinks about terrorism as ideological, carried out by men who’ve been radicalised by Salafist videos or neo-Nazi propaganda.
The truth, as I’ve discovered while researching the histories of dozens of terrorists, is that many of them began in the same way as mass shooters: abusing their families – and, crucially, becoming desensitised to the effects of violence – behind closed doors.
Last week, harrowing accounts began to emerge of the final moments of the eight people who died in the terrorist attack on London Bridge and Borough Market in June 2017. Two members of the gang, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba, are known to have abused female family members – his wife in Redouane’s case, and his elder sister in Zaghba’s. The ringleader, Khuram Butt, had previously tried to leave his pregnant wife to fight for ISIS in Syria, but was prevented from leaving the UK by members of his family. He led the London Bridge attack just weeks after his second child was born, leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless.
Two weeks later, a right-wing extremist, Darren Osborne, staged a copycat attack, ranting about killing Muslims and driving another rented van into worshippers leaving a mosque in north London. Osborne had shown no interest in politics until a few weeks earlier, when his partner had finally had enough of his abuse (one of his many convictions was for ABH against her) and threw him out of the family home.
So many terrorists are men who have been abusing women for years before they become killers. And it’s not hard to see how domestic abuse lays the groundwork. Few men escalate their behaviour to the extremes of violence, but those that do are accustomed to terrorising women and children – and enjoy the sense of power that goes with it. Don’t forget that some of the ‘foreign fighters’ who turned up in Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS admitted that they were attracted by the idea of owning ‘sex slaves’, surely the most extreme form of domestic violence it’s possible to imagine.
Toxic masculinity is creating a pool of men who are susceptible to the propaganda of terrorist organisations – men who are responding positively to messages legitimising the use of lethal force against civilians.
Shocking as all this is, some good might come of it. Terrorism isn’t usually perceived as male violence – with all the connections that implies. But once we understand the link, we’ll have a tool to help us identify dangerous individuals before they launch an attack.
Eighteen months ago, MI5 revealed that it has a list of 3,000 active suspects who might be in the process of preparing a terrorist outrage, along with 20,000 others who have been investigated but aren’t believed to pose an immediate threat. The demand on resources is enormous, given how many agents are needed to watch just one individual. But those with a history of domestic abuse should be the highest priority.
Paradoxically, while toxic masculinity is facilitating terrorist attacks, it could also be one of the biggest warning signs for counter-terrorist agencies. Keeping tabs on it may be a means of saving lives.
Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists by Joan Smith is published by riverrun on 16th May, 2019
Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 14 May 2019