Masculinity and Terrorism
As more details emerge about the two brothers who set off the bombs at the Boston Marathon -- killing three innocent people and grievously injuring many more -- one item that has come to light is the fact that the older brother, the leader and likely mastermind Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was once charged with domestic violence against his wife. He is reported to have been continually abusive to her.
Now, we certainly didn’t need this additional information in order to conclude that Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- who died during a shootout with the police -- was a very bad guy.
But at the same time I do not believe that his previous arrest for domestic violence, and his reported ongoing pattern of abusiveness, are just incidental pieces of the story.
In fact, I believe that, to a large extent, they are the story.
Tsarnaev’s pattern of abusive behavior shows us how this man thought. It shows how he moved through the world. Here was a man, who, when things did not go his way, sought to punish others. He sought revenge. He sought to reclaim his sense of masculine power.
When he was frustrated with his wife, he behaved violently toward her. In order to punish her.
When he was frustrated with his life in the United States, he behaved violently toward it as well. In order to punish it.
The thinking of the batterer/terrorist. It’s no wonder that many people have begun to refer to domestic violence as “intimate terrorism.” The thought processes of the batterer and the terrorist are remarkably similar, and they both go like this:
You must do what I want, or there will be hell to pay! If you do not accord me the sort of respect that I think that I deserve, then you will feel my wrath! And if you harm me, if you hurt me, if you disrespect me, I will make you pay! I will hurt you! I will hunt you down and kill you! Or, worse, I will kill your children in front of you. You will feel my pain!
I will show you who the boss truly is!
The tactics of the batterer/terrorist. The things that abusive men do are terroristic. The things that terrorists do are abusive.
The Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory, a questionnaire used to assess the severity of abuse in a relationship, includes the following items:
I yelled and screamed at my partner.
I blamed my partner for my problems.
I blamed my partner for causing my violent behavior.
And that’s not so different from:
I yelled and screamed about the United States.
I blamed the United States for my problems.
I blamed the United States for causing my violent behavior.
Items that are part of the Abusive Behavior Inventory, another measure of abuse in relationships, include:
Your partner gave you angry stares or looks.
Your partner threatened to hit or throw something at you.
You partner pushed, grabbed, or shoved you.
You partner used your children to threaten you (example: told you that you would lose custody, said he would leave town with the children).
Your partner did things to scare you (examples: told you something “bad” would happen, threatened to commit suicide).
Your partner threatened you with a knife, gun, or other weapon.
People with terrorist intentions do all of these things as well… the angry stares, the threats, the physical violence... And as we all (should) know by know, both batterers and terrorists often kill. And while the risk of an American citizen being killed in a terrorist attack is still rather low, the risk of an American woman being killed by a terroristic act on the part of her husband or boyfriend is actually comparatively high.
The case has been strongly argued elsewhere that abusers are in fact intimate terrorists.
What I am arguing here is that terrorists are, by and large, also abusers. Public abusers.
The phrase Do what I want, or I will destroy you! is the same, whether the intended target is one woman, one bus, one street, one city, or even an entire country. Proclaiming that “the people of America will suffer!” is no different from announcing that “the mother of my children will suffer!”
But don’t terrorists have a political agenda? And aren’t their grievances sometimes justified? Aren’t American bombs raining down on their homelands?
Well, let’s break that one down:
Political agenda? Yes, terrorists do (claim to) have a political agenda. But so do batterers. Let us not forget, after all, that the personal is political. And that every man who attempts to (re)exert power and control over a woman is in fact also (re)exerting a personal/political agenda of patriarchal supremacy. He is asserting his male dominance over someone who is female.
And often such an abusive man will proclaim that he is in fact standing up for all men who are being mercilessly oppressed by conniving, castrating, emasculating women. So the batterer, too, claims to have an agenda -- one he may truly believe in!
Justified grievances? Terrorists believe that their behavior is all about avenging grievances. About getting justice. They feel oppressed and diminished. And there may (or may not) be some truth to that sense of persecution. Maybe they are being treated like dirt. But what makes you a terrorist is not the mistreatment you experience, but rather the choice you then make to respond to those real or imagined slights with a violent vengeance designed to enable you to re-exert a measure of control. To regain a piece of your power.
But guess what? Batterers have grievances too. They want justice too. They too feel oppressed and diminished. And there may (or may not) be some truth to that sense of persecution. Maybe they are being treated like dirt. But what makes you a batterer is not the mistreatment you experience, but rather the choice you then make to respond to those real or imagined slights with a violent vengeance designed to enable you to re-exert a measure of control. To regain a piece of your power.
While a terrorist’s target tends to be larger in scope, his victims are no more or less deserving of being hurt or killed than is a woman who is being abused at the hands of a batterer.
And while most terrorists will claim that they are merely fighting back against a domineering foe, most batterers feel exactly the same way.
American bombs? Yes, there may well be American bombs raining down on the homelands of some people who then choose to become terrorists. But a lot of American terrorists are also home-grown…. like the guy who blew up the Federal Building (complete with its daycare full of children) in Oklahoma City, and the young killers at Columbine high school who massacred their classmates. In both of these cases, the perpetrators saw themselves as wreaking vengeance upon the people who had mistreated/oppressed them. And they took it upon themselves to serve as judge, jury, and executioner of their purported tormenters.
These American home-grown terrorists were all saying: “If you hurt me, I will kill you!”
How is that different from an abusive man who tells his wife or girlfriend, “If you hurt me, I will hurt you worse! If you leave me, I will kill you!” and then who goes on to do just that?
It isn’t any different. It’s the same pattern of masculine supremacist behavior.
And as for the behavior of the United States upon the world stage, sometimes the country does use violence to deal with those who will not do its bidding. Sometimes it rains bombs upon those who will not comply. And often innocent people are killed. Perhaps “the land of the free and the home of the brave” does itself at times act like a terrorist or a batterer. The U.S. government certainly has a documented history of supporting terrorist activities or death squads in places like Iran, Lebanon, and Central America.
But I don’t think this reality diminishes the essential argument that I am making here: that the use of illegal and/or unwarranted violence to force others’ compliance -- whether it be on a global, national, local, or family level -- is an abuse of power, it is in fact all the same kind of abuse of power , and we need to understand that terrorist violence against a public target is essentially the same thing as is personal violence against an intimate target.
So just what is masculine about all this? (And why it matters.) After the attacks of September 11th 2001, there was a lot of attention paid to the Saudi-funded, Wahhabi-influenced madrassa schools in Pakistan that focus on inculcating boys into radical Islam. (While the term madrassa most often refers to any school, religious or not, radical or not, coeducational or not, the focus here was on the ones that fomented a certain philosophy of fundamentalist Islam that is hostile to the west.) There was a concern that these radical madrassas were merely incubating a new generation of terrorists.
But we don’t need fundamentalist Islam or conservative Pakistani madrassas to create a new generation of violent men! The modern madrassa of radical masculinity that we are currently running is more than sufficient to keep us supplied with a plethora of batterers, terrorists, and other perpetrators of patriarchal violence.
In most of the world we are still bringing up our boys with the message that they need to be in charge. Be in control. To step up. Be a “man.” “Man up.” Be the leader. Dominate. And a key part of these messages is that they should respond to someone -- anyone -- who disrespects them with immediate and great aggression. That they should “open a can of whup ass” on anyone who causes them trouble. Who messes with them. Who screws with them. Who fails to honor them and their social status. Who disses their power. All around the world, in most places, we still do this -- we train boys to respond to pretty much any slight (real or imagined) with an exaggerated display of manly prowess. We encourage them to defend their masculine status, to protect their manly ego, through pretty much any means necessary, including violence.
And even if we don’t directly convey these messages to the boys who live within our own households, our young men encounter them nearly everywhere else -- in the schoolyard, on the playground, on the street, and through the music they listen to, the shows, sports, and movies they watch, and the video games they play.
Worldwide, because of the messages we give our boys, because we are raising them to aggressively defend their honor, to protect a false sense of masculine identity that is based largely on power over others, we are -- right now! -- raising the next generation of batterers. The next generation of terrorists. Young men who will hurt and kill innocent people.
The normal curve of men’s violence. But many will say: But not all men are batterers! Not all men are terrorists! And they’re right. But nearly all terrorists are men. And nearly all batterers are men. What we’re doing in our madrassas of radical masculinity has an impact. When you give boys the message that violence in defense of one’s sense of honor is acceptable, some people will take that message to heart. They will take offense at slights (real or imagined) and go ahead and act violently to reclaim their now-damaged identity as a man. Nearly all human behavior occurs along a bell shaped curve. So while most men will not respond to threats to their masculine identity with overt violence, if we keep giving that message -- the message that boys must fight for their manhood -- then we are guaranteeing that some will become violent. And until we change our definitions and ideas about just what makes someone a man -- and until we get extremely clear within ourselves that a fragile masculinity based upon supremacy over others is nothing worth fighting for -- we will continue to pay the costs of men’s violence. And we will continue to have both batterers and terrorists.
Batterers terrorize us.
Terrorists batter us.
It’s time we recognized these behaviors as being same thing.
And worldwide, we are still teaching our boys an ideology of masculinity that says: “Mess with me, and I will kill you.”
And yet we are all stunned when they do just that.