Journalist Joan Smith was the first person to point out that all of the 2017 UK terrorist attackers had a history of domestic violence. From the Manchester bomber, who was known to police for assaulting a woman, to the London Bridge attackers, who abused their wives, mothers and sisters, the portrait is shockingly clear.
Terrorism is treated as a special category of crime and this has blinded us to the obvious – that it is, almost always, male violence. It stands beside cases such as those of the Finsbury Park Mosque attacker and the Florida school shooter: these are atrocities committed by privately abusive men whose public outbursts costs lives. The Charlie Hebdo killers provide a further insight into the role of childhood trauma in developing violent behaviour. But the greatest proof lies in ISIS, the world’s biggest violent boys’ gang, who deliberately recruit youths who have been inured to cruelty and rape. Until Joan Smith’s radical outcry in 2017, the authorities missed this link – largely because violence against women is dangerously normalised in our culture. Yet, since domestic abuse often comes before a public attack acting as a rehearsal and deadening levels of empathy and horror in the perpetrators – acknowledging this link provides a weapon against the scourge of our age. Smith sets out a course of action that could transform our approach to domestic abuse and save countless lives on our streets. In conversation with Finn Mackay.
Photo credit: Alexander Seale
Audience Member Review
Written by Laura Gallagher
What do most terrorists have in common?
Ask this question on streets in Europe or the USA today and it’s likely that a number of people would answer ‘Islam’. Others who have not adopted this recent and racist definition of terrorism might answer ‘ideology’ or ‘extremism’.
Few, I think, would say ‘a history of violence against women’ – unless, that is, they’d already encountered Joan Smith’s new book, Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men into Terrorists. Barack Obama, in his speech following the 2012 Connecticut mass shooting, mourned 26 victims, children and teachers – forgetting that Adam Lanza’s first victim that morning was his own mother, Nancy Lanza. He shot her four times in the head where she was lying in bed.
Smith ‘noticed’ this. She also noticed that of the five perpetrators of the 2017 attacks on Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena and London Bridge, four had histories of violence again female relatives and in the case of Salman Abedi, an assault on a female classmate. She noticed that Darren Osborne, the perpetrator of the Finsbury Park Mosque attack, had a list of convictions for grievous and actual bodily harm, including one against a female partner. The 2016 Nice truck attack fell into the pattern too. As the authorities didn’t seem to be taking it seriously, Smith ‘thought she’d better go and write a book about it.’
As Finn Mackay who is chairing puts it, the outcome is impressively ‘gripping’ for ‘a nonfiction book on quite a depressing topic.’ And Smith has hardly been untouched by the work: when Mackay asks what it was like to delve into the material, she confesses that ‘it was pretty awful. By the end I was having a lot of nightmares and sleeping very badly.’
When she tried looking into the information held on terrorists at Scotland Yard, she found little about their personal and family lives: ‘no one had ever asked the question’, that was the problem. The people dealing with terrorism, says Smith, ‘think it’s a matter of ideology.’ Smith disagrees: what we’re seeing here is a pattern of male violence which is strikingly uniform across cultures and ideologies, from religious extremism to far right white supremacy nationalism. ‘The violence comes first’, she says, and ideology simply offers a justification for taking it further. These men do not fall into a separate category, apart from the other men who commit violence against women. Rather, they are men who have been ‘habituated to violence’, who, as it were, practise violence on women in private before going public. ‘Getting away with it has an encouraging effect,’ says Smith.
If the link sounds tenuous, one has only to look more closely at one or two examples. Robert Lewis Dear Jnr, perpetrator of the 2015 Colorado Springs attack (on a Planned Parenthood Clinic) had been accused of domestic violence by two wives, of rape by two women, and of stalking by another – but his only conviction was for driving without a seatbelt. Meanwhile the perpetrator of the 2014 Sidney café siege had been charged with 37 sexual offences (only 2 months prior to the siege), and other recent charges against him included the murder of his wife – and yet somehow he had been repeatedly let out on bail.
So why were so many of these men walking free (and in some cases allowed access to firearms) in spite of the fact that their histories of violence against women were known to authorities?
The same reason, perhaps, that it so easy for Obama to forget that mass shooter Adam Lanza had also shot his mother that morning. Because domestic and sexual violence by men against women – private violence by men against women – is so thoroughly normalised. It isn’t perceived or treated in the same manner – that is, as seriously – as the public violence of terrorism. As Mackay puts it: domestic and sexual violence are considered ‘a normal part of heterosexual relationships – something women should expect, just something that men do.’
But if the public violence of terrorism shares a cause with the private violence that affects women and children so much, then they must also share a solution. The authorities ‘still don’t get that misogyny and sexual violence are at the heart of this problem’, says Smith. What’s needed is to ‘bring people who know about domestic abuse and violence against women into the heart of anti-terrorist work.’ Anyone who knows anything about domestic abuse, knows, for instance, that the most dangerous time for a woman is the time of the leaving an abusive relationship and the year immediately following.
Until security services start ‘seeing these warning signs, putting it all together and taking it much more seriously’, a minority of abusers who are ‘susceptible to radicalisation’ will continue graduating from private to public acts of violence. How many dead might still be living if more of these perpetrators had faced consequences for what they did to women?
And how many dead women might still be living if perpetrators generally faced consequences for what they do? If police and the justice system took male violence against women seriously? It is testament to the enduring androcentrism of our social order (still enduring 30 years after Smith’s eye-opening book Misogynies) that the authorities still need feminists like Smith to do the ‘noticing’ when it comes to male patterns of violence. And it is testament to the weakness of an androcentric social order that male violence erupts in these patterns, blighting and ending so many female lives. It is galling that it could take a link with terrorism for authorities to begin doing exactly that; painful that justice for women has never in itself been enough of an incentive. Nevertheless we may thank goodness that we do have feminists like Smith to do the noticing and the research for us all.