It's been one of those weeks that makes you not want to open the paper, not want to turn on the news. A young woman with a child in her arms was killed by the father of that child, who then flees and goes on to take his own life.
You might think I am talking about the Kansas City Chief's Jovan Belcher, who shot his girlfriend and his baby's mother, Kasandra Perkins, to death and then drove to the team's practice facility, where he took his own life. But incredibly, I'm not.
If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, then you might know I am actually talking about another young couple. A young woman named Selina Brown was killed Sunday evening as she tried to board a city bus with her child, who was also wounded in the shooting. Earlier this week, it was reported that Brown's longtime boyfriend, the father of her child, was named as her killer. He too is now dead.
As you might imagine, many people are struggling to make sense of this — and some people think they know. Variously, we've heard it's about our American love for guns. Others say in the case of Jovan Belcher, it's about athletes' sense of entitlement. For some, it's a culture that places the prerogatives of men above the dignity and safety of women.
Can I just tell you, I credit the pain, the fear, and the sadness that provokes the outrage. But I feel that our rush to claim the moral high ground obscures some hard questions — and perhaps harder truths.
Let's take the whole question of access to guns. As Craig Whitney points out in his new book Living with Guns, gun violence has actually been falling dramatically in this country, although the number of guns in circulation has not.
In fact, Whitney says there are some 100 million handguns in the U.S. right now and the prospect that any significant number of these will be turned in or confiscated by the government seems more a fantasy — like those made up sports leagues — than a real plan for addressing a real problem.
And then there is the troubling matter of relationship violence. Here too, the outrage is quick to surface, but less so are some surprising facts. According to the latest figures available from the Justice Department, as horrifying as the incidents are, the number of murders of intimate partners has fallen dramatically in the last 20 years.
While it is true that women and girls are the majority of victims of family murders, men and boys accounted for 42% of victims; hardly a small number. But this is something we rarely hear about. And when we do hear about domestic violence aimed at men, it's as likely to be as a joke on a late night talk show than in a news report. Do you think I'm kidding? I'm not. Here's The Tonight Show on November 14th:
"Here's something I mentioned last night. A woman in Arizona ran over her husband with her Jeep because she blamed him for Obama getting re-elected. See, I don't think the woman is being fair. If Obama hadn't saved the auto industry, she wouldn't have been able to run over her husband with an American-made car."
In this case the man survived, thankfully. It should be said that maybe we think it's OK to joke about it because we assume that if a wife harms a husband, then the wife must have been pushed to the brink. That might be so, but that is why we also need to look at issues like mental illness. We also need to look at some of the reasons that people experiencing violence make the decisions they make.
Princeton professor Devah Pager's work showing that young black men with no criminal record fared no better in their job searches than white men just out of prison, may explain why black women in particular may be reluctant to call for help until it is too late. Maybe it's out of fear that the men in their lives will pay a price far out of proportion to what these women intend or want.
Remarkably and tragically, according to news reports, the stepfather of the young woman killed in D.C. earlier this week is a veteran D.C. police officer and even he apparently could not persuade her to end the relationship that ended up costing her her life.
Murder is a terrible thing and even when relationship violence does not end in death, it's an ugly thing. But it seems to me that the stereotyping of men as only and always the villains and women as only and always the victims ignores the reality of toxic relationships and the social forces that the people in them know all too well.
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