Argus title : Let Us Address the Issue of ‘Femicide’
see also : Moth in a Spider’s Web
Five Amish schoolgirls are dead, killed by a man who went into a Pennsylvania school, set the boys free, then bound ten girls hand and foot and shot them. He aimed at their heads at point blank range. The faces of both the living and the dead were horribly disfigured. Those who survived are critically injured.
He was well prepared. US police report that the equipment he took with him indicated he was prepared for a siege and may have intended not just to shoot the girls, but also to sexually abuse and torture them. Shortly before the assault, he contacted his wife saying that he had sexually abused girls 20 years earlier and was having “dreams” of doing it again.
Events of appalling horror and cruelty happen all the time. Some of them make it to newspapers and TV reports, while others do not. This depends upon the vagaries of the media and what is of political significance at the time.
So, for example, the bombing of schools in Iraq or Afghanistan typically receive less attention than the deaths of school students in the USA. It isn’t just that Western media value American lives above those of other nations – though they probably do – it’s almost certainly also because it’s easier to strip these individual killings of their true political significance.
The Amish killing has everything needed to enthral the world’s media. There is the rolling beauty of the
Pennsylvania countryside, and set against it, pious women in homespun dresses and bonnets and bearded patriarchs in black trousers and braces. And there are the innocent victims, the small virginal daughters of virtuous country folk.
It’s not that there’s anything new about school shootings in the USA. There have been many of them and in fact the Amish attack was the third in a week. Neither is it unusual for the victims to be singled out on the basis of gender.
Five days earlier in Colorado a man took six female high school students hostage, sexually abused them and then shot one dead before killing himself.
Though it is rarely reported, one of the most significant things about North American school attacks is that though they are almost always perpetrated by males, the victims are disproportionately likely to be female.
Indeed, if one UN reports about Afghanistan is to be believed, more girls have been shot and killed over the past 6 months in North American schools than have been killed in schools in Afghanistan. This is despite the Taliban’s murderous campaign against female education and its closure of over 300 schools.
Just last month in Canada a 25 year old gunman burst into a Montreal college killing one young woman and wounding 19 others. The majority of those injured were female.The shooting revived terrible memories of the day in 1989 when 25 year old Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, before shooting himself. Lepine walked around the school for 45 minutes deliberately targeting female engineering students and shouting “I hate feminists”.
This massacre lead to widespread discussion in Canada about violence against women, but there has been nothing comparable in the USA, where the authorities have been largely unwilling to recognise the gender-based nature of many of these crimes.
This was the case even after the massacre in Jonesboro, Arkansas, which took place in March 1998. Mitchell Johnson killed one teacher and four students, injuring another teacher and nine other students. All the victims were female.
Rachelle Smith, a US campaigner against violence against women, wrote with frustration: “Classmates of the dead and injured heard Mitchell Johnson threatening to kill a girl who had refused to be his girlfriend. He reportedly said ‘Nobody’s going to break up with me,’ and told other girls that ‘Tomorrow you will find out if you live or die.’
Fellow campaigner Lore Rogers, commented: “The violence in this case was not unpredictable. Mitchell Johnson did not get what he wanted from a girl. Because one of the injured girls had rejected his advances, he vowed to kill her and other girls.
“His violence was identical to what occurs when adult male batterers use violence in retaliation for their partner’s attempts to leave a relationship.”
Remarkably, the Jonesboro attack was the third fatal school shooting involving females in a period of five months.
Three months earlier, in December 1997, a boy had opened fire on a student prayer circle at a high school in West Padukah, Kentucky, killing three girl students and wounding five. One was left paralysed.
Two months before that incident, a woman and two female students died at a shooting in Pearl, Mississippi. The perpetrator first stabbed his mother to death and then shot and killed 2 schoolgirls. Police reported he was angry at being “jilted”.
Observers in the USA have noted that while the police and the media tend to report the gender of perpetrators, typically referring to them as “boys” or “men”, victims are usually described by non-gender specific words such as “teachers” and “students”. It is a practice which has been emulated in the UK and has effectively obscured the misogynist nature of many of the crimes.
As a consequence, there has been almost no discussion of the political significance of such killings and the attitudes which give rise to them. Instead the focus tends to be upon the personal pathology and history of the individual perpetrator.
Police investigating the cases have exhibited an extraordinary reluctance to address the issue of what has come to be known as ‘femicide’ or ‘gynocide’. Typically, police refer to the crimes as “carefully planned” providing “evidence of detailed preparation” by the perpetrator, but then, in contradiction, insist on describing the choice of victims as “random”.
The Amish killings have been revealed as a particularly brutal gender-based crime, but their political significance is already being obscured. The focus of media attention is not the suffering of the girls concerned, but upon the personal history of the perpetrator and the response of the ‘community’.
And the community spokespeople are, unsurprisingly in this deeply conservative and patriarchal society, usually Amish men.
These bearded patriarchs were swift to describe the killings as “God’s will” and to speak of “forgiveness”. Secular journalists wrote of the “calm endurance” of the people and reported almost voyeuristically that “the community” intends to “pray” not just for the victims, but also the attacker.
But amongst the Amish women, and what is left of the children, there is a terrible silence.
Of recent days I have been reminded of the famous Ealing Vicarage rape which took place in 1986. During a burglary of the Vicarage, one of the men involved raped the Vicar’s teenage daughter. She, like the Amish girls, was a virgin.
Her father, the Vicar, appeared on television telling the world he “forgave” his daughter’s attacker. He gained many plaudits for his “Christian” principles from journalists who clearly found it more agreeable to focus upon the father’s magnanimity rather than the daughter’s raw suffering.
The father’s comments almost certainly helped his daughter’s attacker to a lighter sentence. There was outrage amongst anti-rape campaigners when the courts handed down a lighter sentence to the rapist than it did to the man who led the burglary but refused to rape the girl.
Then, as in the Amish case, the Vicar’s comments were presented by a secular media as evidence of great sanctity. Then, as now, the media uncritically accepted the assumption of all patriarchal societies that males in authority have a right to speak for females whom they consider ‘their women’ – whatever the women in question may think about it.
In 1986, few commentators seemed to care what the Vicar’s daughter felt, just as most journalists now do not consider what the terrorized child survivors may be feeling as they lie in their hospital beds.
The Vicar’s daughter later rejected her father’s statements and went on to become a campaigner for the rights of rape victims.
It is to be hoped that the Amish girls and women will similarly break their silence, forget endurance, and howl grief and fury at the skies like Rachel weeping for her children, who “would not be comforted, because they are not.”
In the face of official silence and indifference we too should cry out for justice. For there can be no peace without justice, and no real forgiveness unless it is based upon truth.
And the truth which needs to be spoken is that the exploitation, violation and murder of women and girls in almost all countries of the world constitute the last and greatest injustice facing human society.