Last month 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people over two days in a shooting and arson spree across Nova Scotia. Immediately prior to the killings he had assaulted and bound his girlfriend. The killings represent Canada’s most deadly mass murder and bear the hallmarks of similar events in Canada, the United States and other western countries. The killer was an adult male acting alone, and the killings were preceded by violence against an intimate partner or female relative.
Some mass killings that aren’t preceded by known histories of violence against women are nevertheless motivated by hatred of women and specifically targeted women. Wortman’s deadly rampage fits a pattern that police, policy-makers and researchers have been slow to recognize or quick to dismiss. Violence against women, misogyny and mass casualty attacks are intimately connected.
Ignoring this connection reflects and entrenches the long-held perception that male violence against women, particularly against intimate partners, is less serious than violence committed against strangers. Feminists have long recognized that this perception, consistent with the notion of women, particularly wives and girlfriends as male property, literally endangers women’s lives.
What is less well recognized, however, is that the failure to acknowledge the connection between male violence against women and mass casualty attacks influences the security of everybody. It undermines society’s ability to better understand, prevent and effectively respond to these attacks. There is a connection between male violence against women and mass casualty attacks and it is overlooked or downplayed by policy-makers, police and researchers. There are potentially lethal implications when these connections are not addressed.
Two years ago, 25-year-old Alek Minassian drove a van at pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 people, of whom eight were women. The attacker’s online posts point to hostility against women as a motive. Minassian identified with the incel, “involuntary celibate,” group of men who blame women for their perceived sexual rejection. He is currently in prison facing 10 counts of murder and 16 of attempted murder. His trial has been put on hold because of COVID-19.
In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in a shooting and stabbing spree in California. He, too, obsessed over being denied sex by women and was motivated by violent revenge.
Most Canadians are familiar with the 1989 Montreal Massacre in which 25-year-old Marc Lépine deliberately targeted and murdered 14 women enrolled in engineering at École Polytechnique, affiliated with l’Université de Montréal. In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life.
While the number and lethality of lone-actor mass-casualty attacks have increased dramatically over the previous three decades, the paradigmatic example occurred much earlier.
In 1966, 25-year-old Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother at their respective homes before shooting and killing 14 strangers at the University of Texas. United States research on mass shootings finds that domestic violence is part of most such events. That research found that in the 10 years between 2009 and 2018 the perpetrator shot an intimate partner or family member during the mass rampage in over 50 per cent of cases.
Mass shootings are only one location of the intermingling of “public” violence and domestic or family violence. There is increasing evidence that mass casualty attacks by lone actors where weapons such as cars, trucks or knives are used also fit the pattern.
The biographies of so-called “lone wolf terrorists” frequently include known and often extensive histories of violence against women. Yet the connection between mass casualty attacks and violence against women continues to hide in plain sight.
In western countries around the world, as mass casualty attacks by lone actors are increasingly recognized as a major security threat, governments are setting up centres to combat such attacks. These centres, however, typically don’t include experts in gendered violence.
Security services tasked with preventing and responding to such attacks continue to make sharp distinctions between what is considered “personal” and “public violence.” In Australia, for example, in 2014, Man Haron Monis, took a number of people hostage at a Sydney café. At the time, he was on bail, charged with being accessory to murder of his former wife and 40 sexual offences against seven women.
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Prior to the siege, he had come to the attention of security services. However, they concluded, tragically, that he wasn’t a risk because his “acts of personal violence were exclusively directed towards women he knew in one capacity or other, rather than towards the public at large.”
During the siege, Monis’s capacity for violence was underestimated because his attacks on women were not considered real violence. Most shockingly, the sexual assaults were discussed as “acts of seduction.” Police were later criticized for failing to act to end the siege until after Monis shot one of the hostages.
Research has sometimes contributed to obscuring the intimate connection between “personal” violence against women and the more public violence of mass casualty attacks. Some researchers of lone wolf terrorism adhere to a “turning point” paradigm, looking for clues as to why men turn to violence.
In this framework, violence against women is often considered a “trigger point.” This approach is problematic. It assumes that men turn violent when they commit public acts of violence. However, it is often clear from the biographies of the men studied that they are not turning violent but switching the target of their violence from known women to random members of the public. In other words, such men are violent men who commit violence against women they know and then against members of the public.
In addition, by categorizing violence against women as a “trigger” to the violence against strangers, the initial violence against the female victim is considered separately to, and as less significant than, the killing of strangers. Yet, the violence against the woman is typically part of the same incident or event.
The idea of a “trigger” implies the woman victim is in some ways to blame for the violence. This is significant because violence by men particularly against their female partners is often falsely understood as a problem of the “relationship” rather than the responsibility of the abusive man. Dominant cultural scripts that blame women for male violence and minimize and deny such violence mean constant vigilance is needed to ensure language is not used in ways that entrench or reinvigorate these scripts.
The research on lone actor violence is replete with euphemisms for the male violence against women that precedes mass casualty attacks. Terms used to describe serious acts of violence against intimate partners such as “marital discord,” “conflict with women” and “personal conflict with a woman” support a false dichotomy between public and “private” violence that sees the former as more “real” and more serious than the latter.
The media can buy into these tropes by adopting or uncritically reporting similar language or suggest that an attacker is a regular guy or family man who just snapped. Additionally, when media report violence against women as less threatening, significant and deadly than violence against strangers, they are also guilty of continuing these stereotypes.
Last year in Sydney, Australia, a man assaulted his sister before going on to attack members of the public with a knife. A police commissioner dismissed the connection between family violence and the knife attacks stating: “That [family violence] is not unusual in terms of what we see day-in-day-out in some houses across NSW [but] that is not a common theme for someone to then take the next step of coming onto the streets of Sydney with a knife and killing people and threatening to kill people.”
The commissioner is correct. Violence against women by men and family violence as the most common type of this violence is endemic. Most men who assault their intimate partners, mothers and sisters don’t go onto attack random people. However, we can state with increasing confidence that most of those who do commit mass casualty attacks have committed violence against women, usually in the context of an intimate or family relationship either as part of the attack or previously.
There will no doubt be an investigation into the recent Nova Scotia mass killing. If we want to prevent these killings, we must begin with the connections between these killings and violence against women.