men, masculinities and gender politics

Authors

It is NOT “Couple Dies.” (When it comes to “murder-suicide” the press still doesn’t get it.)

 

What we call “murder-suicides” – especially those related to domestic violence – remain a depressingly (and infuriatingly) common event in modern life.  And the press coverage of a recent murder-suicide in my community shows that even in this day and age, even after decades of activism and awareness-raising by feminist anti-violence organizations, the press still hasn’t gotten the real story when it comes to these tragedies. 

To these travesties. 
 
Simply put, when it comes to understanding the dynamics of men’s violence against women, the media still don’t have a clue.  The media always claim to be about getting to the “truth.”  But in the case of murder-suicides, even though the truth is indeed out there, the media remain woefully (perhaps even willfully) ignorant of the facts.
 
The facts on murder-suicide.  According to a 2011 report called “American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States” by the U.S.-based Violence Policy Center, the United States experiences over 624 murder-suicides each year.  (That’s 12 murder-suicides each week!)  By comparison, Australia is reported to experience about 20 per year, a considerably lower rate, even when controlling for differences in population size.  And Canada too seems to have a lower rate than the United States.
 
But in both Australia and Canada the rates of overall violence against women are very similar to that of the US, and, as an article in the Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator last year stated: “While figures released last month by Statistics Canada show the national homicide rate has tumbled to its lowest level in more than four decades, the number of spousal murders has not gone down.”  (http://www.thespec.com/news/crime/article/620521--couple-dead-in-murder-suicide)
 
Is it possible that the rate of domestic violence murder-suicide in Canada and in Australia are greatly under-reported?  Absolutely.  In the United States, the Violence Policy Centre was stunned to discover that it is the only organization that collects these figures.   And no parallel organizations exist in either Australia or Canada.  So I would argue that there is no good reason to assume that murder-suicides are less frequent in those countries than in the U.S.
 
So just who is responsible for all of these “couples” dying?  
 
It’s men.
 
According to the Violence Policy center study, over 90 % of the killers are men. Compared to women, men are over 9 times more likely to be the perpetrator of murder-suicide.  
 
Over 75% of the people murdered in murder-suicides are female.  Compared to males, females are over 3 times more likely to be the victims in a murder-suicide.  And the vast majority of the remaining male victims of murder-suicide are actually killed by other men because they are somehow connected to the woman that this brute wanted to kill. 
 
In addition, almost 15% of those killed in “murder-suicides” are children, and a great number of the children survive are forced to bear witness to the brutality.
 
(And, of course, all children who do survive parental murder-suicide are left as orphans.) 
 
Tragically, according to the Violence Policy Center, these numbers represent an under-estimation of the real incidence of murder-suicide.
 
(You can find the report here: http://www.vpc.org/studies/amroul2012.pdf.)
 
Not “Couple Dies.”  The Hamilton Spectator article cited above bore the terribly unfortunate headline “Couple Dead in Murder Suicide.”   But that’s not really what happened, is it?  What happened in that case (as in the vast majority of murder-suicides) was that the husband decided to kill his wife before taking his own life.  But when we say “couple dead,” we remove the man’s agency.  When we say “couple dead,” we ignore the fact that it was his choice.  His brutal behaviour.  His unbelievably arrogant decision to take her life before ending his own.
 
The headline should not read “Couple Dead in Murder Suicide.”  What it should read is: “Man Kills Woman, Then Self.”  Or “Husband Kills Wife, Then Self.”  Because that is what happened.  Unfortunately, that is not how newspapers tend to write the headlines about these heinous acts. 
 
When there was that recent murder-suicide in my area, the headlines from the various news sources read:
 
“Victims of apparent murder-suicide ID'd”
 
“Two die in apparent domestic dispute”           

“Estranged couple found dead in house”

“Estranged [local] couple identified in domestic violence investigation”

No!  No!  No! and No! 
 
“Victims of apparent murder-suicide ID'd.”  “Two die in apparent domestic dispute.” In a murder-suicide the individuals are not equal victims!  A man decided to kill a woman before killing himself.  He made all the decisions.  He decided to play God.  She had no role in her death other than being his unfortunate target. 
 
“Estranged couple found dead in house.”  “Estranged [local] couple identified in domestic violence investigation.”  The man and the woman in this specific situation were no longer a “couple.”  That’s why he killed her – because she left him.  They were not an “estranged couple.”  They had broken up.  She was moving on with her life.  Looking forward to a bright future.  And he killed her for it.

One of the most ridiculous and unfortunate headlines was this one:

Children Safe After Parents Found Dead.

 
What?
 
First, the parents were not just “found dead.”  The man murdered the woman.  And the kids knew what was happening.  The neighbours knew what was happening.  While it was happening.  And how the hell will these children ever feel safe again in this world?  They were orphaned in the worst way possible.
 
But bad as the news coverage was, this last headline still fell short of an even more atrocious one that I often see after these terrible events.  A surreal one that says: “Children Unharmed in Murder-Suicide.” 
 
Willful inaccuracies?  Headlines need to be brief.  They need to catch the reader’s attention.  I get that.  But I think they also provide a snapshot into the mind of the writer, and a glimpse of the societal mores and attitudes of the time.  And I think that the continued failure to acknowledge that murder-suicide is most often an act of male supremacy and of extreme misogyny is not just the result of ignorance or laziness on the part of media.  I have come to believe that the press’ continued characterization of these events as “couple dies” represents a willful omission, one that suggests that in today’s society many of us – instead of seeing these acts of domestic terrorism for what they are – still think (at best) that domestic violence femicides are an isolated, private matter, or (at worst) that the woman somehow played a role in her own demise.  That she somehow drove him to do it.
 
What makes me say this?  Because when it wants to, the press gets it right.  Say, when the victim in a murder-suicide is a male relative, and not an “estranged wife.” 
 
That’s what exactly happened when a murder-suicide occurred 4 years ago in my very own neighbourhood.  When a well-regarded man in the community was murdered by his estranged son-in-law, who then took his own life.  My neighbour died while trying to protect his daughter.
 
When my neighbour was murdered, the press got it right.  Even though the younger man killed himself that same night, the events were not depicted as “couple dies” or as “family members die.”  No, the language used to describe the horrific events of that night was appropriate.  It was respectful.  And it did not link my neighbour to the killer in a way that blamed the victim.  No, my neighbour who was killed was depicted in the press as if he were totally innocent. 
 
Which he was. 
 
Just as is any woman who is murdered by her partner or ex-partner.
 
Sometimes the press does get it right.
 
But only when it wants to.