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Why We Ignore Male Terrorism: On the Santa Barbara shootings

The sounds of what I am told is a gun rally pound against the windows of my hotel room in Madison, Wisconsin, as I write. A man’s angry voice, distorted by amplification, and the sounds of a hyped-up, roused crowd. I can’t hear precisely what he is saying, but periodically, there is a cheer that rattles the windows.

Halfway the country from me, in my home state of California, the city of Santa Barbara is reeling from a brutal attack that killed six women and ended in the suicide of the perpetrator.

Santa Barbara is a fairly quiet place, home to a bustling university campus known as a bit of a party school, but overall, it’s a relatively calm community. Yet, in the United States, we are accustomed to mass violence as a way of life, and thus, we know that even a town like Santa Barbara isn’t immune to brutality — particularly the evil of male violence against women.

Fundamentally, that is what this case is about. The gunman was a member of men’s rights activist (MRA) and pick-up artist (PUA) communities, both of which treat women as common objects of property, and he was angry that women didn’t subscribe to the same views of their bodies that he did. He was angry enough to post long screeds against women, and to video himself vowing to make ‘war on women,’ apparently not satisfied that the government of many US states is already doing just that.

As always in the wake of a mass shooting in the US, people are quick to leap to attributions. The murderer was crazy, they say, and this is why this happened, why he stabbed three people to death before shooting three more. Or they bring up gun culture in the United States, the ready availability of weapons — forgive me, I’m being distracted by the growing sound of drums and cheering from outside, sounding like a crowd preparing for a ritual sacrifice, not a group of people exercising their Constitutional right to peaceful assembly.

What they aren’t talking about is this: it’s time to talk about how male violence against women is a problem of culture, not of madness. It is a problem of socialisation, not of gun culture (though gun culture feeds into the normalisation of violence against women — women run a higher risk of being killed by spouses or intimate partners than strangers, and these murders are most often committed with guns). It is a problem of selective ignorance, not of boys being boys.

Male violence against women is a problem because US culture has collectively allowed it to continue being a problem instead of cracking down on the issue. It has been nearly a quarter century since the École Polytechnique massacre, and yet, women are still being murdered on their college campuses for daring to be women on college campuses. It has been five years since Collier Township, when a misogynist entered a gym and shot three women to death in addition to injuring nine more. For daring to assert physical autonomy. For daring to be themselves in a world that hates women, that normalises violence against them, that looks the other way when men threaten them with emotional and physical violence.

The dangers of the MRA and PUA communities are well known, and have been a fraught and frequent topic of discussion among feminists and other women’s rights movements. There’s an obvious concern about an organisational culture built upon the idea that women are lesser and that they owe something to the men around them. The fact that both movements, in addition to overlapping, often engage in highly cult-like, indoctrinating behaviours means that members internalise and repeat their messaging, which starts to become more like programming than anything else.

Both movements are also widely tolerated. Not just in society and culture in general, where everyday people are often reluctant to push back when they hear harmful language about women, threats, or stories about situations in which women were endangered or harmed. There’s also the concern that law enforcement agencies rarely act on reports of threats and suspicious activity when they involve male violence, and particularly white male terrorism, which is precisely what this kind of violence is.

The media are framing the accused as someone with a rejection complex gone bad. That’s a gross oversimplification of the situation, and one that rather drastically undermines the complexities behind it — like the fact that his own family had reported concerns about his escalating behaviour. The sense of entitlement involved in assuming that all women are available and should be so at all times is something bred and socialised into men, and reinforced into men by movements like the MRA movement and the PUA community. These movements perpetuate an ideology that becomes the foundational underpinning for terrorist acts like this one.

This wasn’t about one man upset because he didn’t get dates. This was about a man who violently hated women, systematically stalked them, killed both strangers and people he knew in a brutal act intended to send a clear message: women, be afraid.

Attempting to cultivate fear in a community is terrorism. Terrorism is designed to create ideological shifts or compromises in communities too frightened or too controlled to fight back — it is also designed to structure a world in which people live in a continuous state of fear and thus are willing to sacrifice freedoms in the name of safety.

What many people do not seem to realise is that women in the United States live in a state of terror already. I hear the cheering from next door and I think of the way a particularly virulent, frightening form of gun culture has wrapped around society, but I also think of how the voice I hear through the microphone frightens me. Because it is loud and male. Because although I am not a woman, I am short and fat and have breasts and hips. The cheering frightens me. Just like the group of male college students I passed on the street while walking back to the hotel at 9:00 the other night frightened me.

Men frighten me.

Because, like women and those socialised as women, I have learned that it is safer to assume that all men pose a threat until categorically proved otherwise than it is to give them the benefit of the doubt.

A few weeks ago, I saw a viral video going around of an advertisement done by a company that tried to turn catcalling on its head: construction workers hollered at women passing by and then said things like ‘you look nice today’ and ‘I admire your intelligence.’ All I could think of was how terrifying that must have been for the women, how they were supposed to smile and look pleased and play along once they realised that it was a ‘game.’

I am reminded of the episode of Six Feet Under where the body of the week is that of a young woman who died because she ran out in front of a car while being chased by her ‘friends,’ who thought it would be amusing to trail her in their car and catcall her, not understanding how frightening that would be for her.

I think of how when I am alone on an elevator with a man, I cross as far away as I can, and brace myself, sticking my hand into my bag so I can grip my keys in my fist, facing out. I calculate the precise angle and trajectory I would need for maximum impact to impair him or at least startle him long enough for me to get away. And I breathe a sigh of relief when the elevator doors open and a woman gets on.

Women in the United States live in a sustained and persistent state of terror — women worldwide do the same. Some women know this experience even more acutely than others, thanks to their race, their religion, their disability status, their class, their gender identification. Being a woman is dangerous.

And one of the reasons it is dangerous is because male violence against women, and acts of male terrorism, are not treated as what they are. They’re termed rampage violence, and the acts of madmen. They are talked about like isolated incidents — tragedies, certainly, but not events that could have been averted. They are not talked about what they are, which is a systemic exertion of power. They are terrorism. They are distilled misogyny.

Society ignores male terrorism because it is normalised, and acculturated. Society ignores men who hate women because men hold positions of power.

Not all men, they tell me.

I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you over the beat of your drums.

Photo by Stephen Z, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license