Romance with murder

Doubly Deviant, Doubly Damned - Punishing Violence - Men of Blood - The Politics of Gun Control - The Will to Violence
November 17, 1995

These are books about violence, except for Robert Spitzer's The Politics of Gun Control, which is about guns in the United States. Written as if it were a policy paper directed at the Democratic party platform committee, its general appeal is nil. According to Spitzer: "The gun debate at its core turns on a single, central question of public policy and it relates to both order and personal conduct: should gun possession and use be significantly regulated?" Since Americans own approximately 66 million hand guns, 73 million rifles and 62 million shotguns, the debate may have missed the mark: who is pointing those guns where? Supporters of what Spitzer calls "the active gun culture" are "overwhelmingly white males", rural, not immigrants. Women, especially in cities, especially in the northeast, especially "from more recent immigrant descent" do not support "the active gun culture".

Spitzer says little about the meaning of guns, their use or their psychological and material effects on those who have them and on those who do not. But he is cogent about the law of the second amendment to the US constitution, which appears to ensure "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms". My rendering of the history goes like this: Jefferson, Madison and their ilk were exceptionally edgy about big, central government. They feared that the new Americans, like the ancient Israelites, would want a king. Certainly they were principled republicans, but they were also monarchs themselves on feudal plantations; and they did not want a central government that could interfere with them, especially with their rights over slaves. Their conception of freedom was freedom from any government powerful enough to constrain them; and they represented an oligarchical elite that controlled state governments. The second amendment armed white men for the purpose of forming state militias - to defend the rights of states against federal intervention.

In the most interesting and closely reasoned part of the book, Spitzer discusses the consistent and continuing refusal of the US Supreme Court to interpret the second amendment as a universal right of individuals to have guns. So why has no one told the American public? In the nasty political culture created by slaveholders, still deeply entrenched, antagonism to the federal government is widespread - and the most rabid have the most guns. Since possession is nine-tenths of the law - and shared delusion establishes nine-tenths of social reality - even mild-mannered, gunless Americans like myself believe that owning a gun is a fundamental right. Though Spitzer maintains that, constitutionally speaking, citizens should not be armed, he advocates a policy of "nonproliferation" as opposed to "disarmament", a vocabulary that conjures up nuclear warheads in Iraq and the Ukraine. As Spitzer knows but does not say, he uses this vocabulary because only invasion and superior force could disarm those old-stock, rural white guys - which is why, when the Feds do try to disarm the David Koreshes and Randy Weavers, it is Apocalypse Now.

In Men of Blood, Elliot Leyton, a Canadian who refers to himself as "an untutored colonial", praises England for its low homicide rate. He rejoices in what he calls England's "culturally programmed internalisation of shame and fear (his italics), of learned inhibitions about violenceItransmitted from generation to generation", a "civilising process" that began in the 13th century. He claims that the English homicide rate is "statistically insignificant compared to other causes of death" and asserts that the English are wrong to be frightened of murder given its rarity. He especially denigrates fear of "spouse killings and sexual murder", which he maintains is orchestrated by political groups with ideological agendas.

He says that half of all women murdered are battered women killed by a gender-neutral spouse, that most women are killed by men they know and simultaneously he characterises murder resulting from battery as "rare". He does not notice that in his own examples the murdered women had left the marital home (escaped the battery) and were then murdered by the men they left. He discusses "sexual murder" without attention to the predatory murdering of prostituted women (except for fleeting observations on the Yorkshire Ripper, which are de rigueur), perhaps because prostitution suggests a failure of "the civilising process", even in England. With pride Leyton makes no distinctions between murder, manslaughter and infanticide, because "someone who kills his wife might, under other circumstances, have killed a friend or a stranger".

In keeping with his thesis that the England's homicide rate is low because the English are civilised, Leyton says the underclass kills most often and that those who kill are "the confused, the ineffectual and the uncontrolled". If you are murdered, of course, you might find the murderer effectual.

Compared with the civilised English, we Americans are fiends: the murder rate in New York City alone in 1993 being 25 times the English rate. He says that while "American culture can be described as a romance with murder", the English "tolerated such violence only when it was part of a larger moral purpose - to correct injustice or to advance the empire". Advancing the empire presumably means that you kill non-whites or Irish not on English soil, thus preserving a low homicide rate. Leyton cites Robin Hood and assorted imperialist heroes as role models for a low-homicide civilisation. He compares Rambo to James Bond - which really is a dirty pool - in order to celebrate Bond's civilised ways, down to the Martini. Though he asserts that throughout the centuries women have comprised the bulk of homicide victims (contradicting prior claims of half and half), he does not revisit Maid Marion to see if cultural revision might lower the murder-of-women rate.

To keep the murder rate low, he recommends shame, tact, politeness, self-control and not to be underclass.

Punishing Violence by Antonia Cretney and Gwynn Davis is a serious, if pedestrian, study of nonsexual (they say) violence that concentrates on victims' perceptions and reactions. Cretney and Davis surveyed assault victims in a casualty department to get access to victims outside the judicial system. This results in what they admit is a "snapshot" - a superficial and fleeting take on the circumstances of a single injury.

In their study of 93 persons, they found that men were twice as likely to be assaulted as women but that women had been assaulted more than once, in private, by the same person, "overwhelmingly" male. They assert that alcohol is a trigger to the violence, but they give the victims' consumption, not the perpetrators'. They generalise that "physical injury isIless significant than psychological harm - including the fear of further violence and a sense of humiliation of having been at someone else's mercy". This does not suggest to them a sexual dominance in the repeated male-on-female assaults. They claim that not reporting to the police increases self-esteem, for which they give a male example. They assert that being brave, saving others, is a value of importance for assault victims. Of course, many wives take beatings to protect children - but they give a male example.

They do not report on women attacked by strangers, but have a category called "Assaults in a 'Domestic' context". A woman beaten for 21 years they characterise as "prepared to accept violence". Another woman claims to have initiated the battery - they consider that she may be a "captain of her fate" exercising equality and not a victim. She is "robust".

Cretney and Davis insist that domestic violence "does not lend itself to criminal prosecution". One reason, they claim, "is that there is likely to have been a history of assault, with the latest incident not necessarily being the most serious". In addition, "the law cannot respond to a history of fear". They support and endorse the logic of police refusal to take criminal complaints and make arrests based on a police perception that the victim is "wavering" or "ambivalent" (try "afraid"). By supporting police inaction, they support repeated assaults on women.

Changes to the status quo might make more sense: mandatory arrest of the perpetrator the first time and every time; the state, not the battered woman, must prosecute - even without her testimony; courts must issue restraining orders when a violent or menacing perpetrator is not in jail - with the requirement that police enforce these orders; collection by police and hospital casualty personnel of evidence of assault, including through photographing bruises and injuries; the development of legal and medical protocols that have evidentiary weight; specially trained prosecutors for this crime; new law that recognises repeated battery as intent to kill -- and serious injury as attempted murder; relocation for the chronically endangered woman; loss of all child-custody rights for a multiply convicted perpetrator; legal aid so that victims can bring civil suits against batterers and against police for refusing to act. The English idea of a "compensation order" is a good one. The fact is that the laws and courts were never designed to punish men who beat female intimates, especially wives. Once the law protected these assaults; now the law must be changed to punish them. If Cretney and Davis want to make policy recommendations - such as supporting police refusal to act - they need more than a snapshot.

Ann Lloyd's Doubly Deviant, Doubly Damned is also a snapshot, this time of some English women who have committed acts of violence and how the legal system treats them. The documentary quality of the picture is obliterated at its heart, however, by a specious analysis of the American Hedda Nussbaum, a woman tortured over 11 years by her cohabiting lover Joel Steinberg and implicated in the death of their adopted daughter, Lisa, 6, whom he beat to death in 1987. Matthew, 4, not mentioned by Lloyd, was also found in the Steinberg apartment tied up and covered in faeces.

Lloyd believes that "leniency was extended through her psychiatric diagnosisIand the psychiatric approach offered avoidance of responsibility and blameI" This coddling occurred, says Lloyd, because Nussbaum "was a passive, loving woman devoted, above all else, to her man". Actually, in the US legal system, 95 to 99 per cent of criminal cases are plea-bargained, as was Nussbaum's. A plea-bargain is an agreement for a lesser sentence or none or obligatory psychiatry, made between the prosecutor and the accused's lawyer either in exchange for a guilty plea or for testimony that will convict someone worse - meaner, crueller, more dangerous. Nussbaum, no longer passive or devoted, testified against her demon lover, by any measure more dangerous and more culpable than she. Not allowing Nussbaum to plea-bargain, which by inference Lloyd advocates, would have indicated a heinous double-standard, misogyny its only rationale. Mob hitmen plea-bargain. Should a battered woman - who was arrested, as Lloyd notes, with "deep gangrenous ulcers on her legs, a pulverised nose, a broken jaw, nine broken ribs, a cauliflower ear, a split lip and bruises on her back and buttocksIa ruptured spleen, a broken knee and minor brain damage" - be denied what those healthy mob boys take for granted? Lloyd seems shamed by Nussbaum's victimisation, and that shame is one reason battered women so often stand alone.

For Lloyd, women's capacity to be violent is a point of pride: "Men are more aggressive than women IBut that should not blind us to the fact that women too have the potential for violence." God forbid. Lloyd's view is twisted but not uncommon: men are more violent because of biology, evolution, hormones, society and environment; women get unfairly punished when we are violent at all, especially if we do not conform to (Lloyd's idea of) the reigning female stereotype; but women can be violent - and it is an embarrassment when feminists suggest that men are and women are not. Lloyd will not countenance women as victims, thus her contempt for Nussbaum. But she does admire battered women who kill their abusers. Her disgust ebbs because she has had the good luck to meet them in prison rather than during the years they were abject and degraded in their homes.

This admiration frees her to discuss some valuable legal reforms that would benefit these alarmingly few women. She summarises the proposal of a group called Rights of Women for a new "partial defence" called "self-preservation", which would allow abused women and children to offer abuse as a mitigating circumstance when they kill. This falls short of a new understanding of self-defence, which I advocate - defined so that the abuser's repeated attacks constitute a recognised threat to life such that killing him would be legally justifiable. Lloyd wants the mandatory life sentence for murder dropped, but she cautions against any remedy, reform or mercy that would reinforce female (by which she means feminine) stereotypes. The legal defence of "diminished capacity" is a no-no for that reason, even with a shattered face, broken jaw, knee and ribs, ruptured spleen and minor brain damage.

It is not news that women are judged harshly in the legal system, especially nonconformist women, or that violent acts by women, even in self-defence, are abhorrent under male dominance. It is sad news that the tortured woman who does not kill the batterer gets judged so harshly, so soullessly, with so much lust to see her punished, by Lloyd. As we say here, Ms Lloyd, walk a mile in her shoes - if she has any.

In contrast with the above books, Susanne Kappeler's The Will to Violence is elegant, tightly reasoned and both morally and intellectually challenging. It engages the reader in an argument about the nature of violence, choice and responsibility. It refuses current and consoling political cliches about violence and identity by repudiating a politics that mistakes identity for political consciousness about oppression; it refuses to accept a "them" defined against an "us". Like Martin Buber's ethically revelatory I and Thou, it inquires into commonplace habits of dehumanisation, commodification and exploitation. Kappeler's point is that the explosive violence of war, racist attacks and sexual abuse does not emerge magically from an otherwise peaceful world.

Any summary of her argument is reductive and distorting. Rather, these are some of her concerns. She wants each of us to delineate the moral and ethical choices available to us, however circumscribed they are. She wants to reckon with the implicit "they" in how we formulate political problems and ideas. She is especially concerned with the ways white women avoid the ideas and convictions of black women.

She sees therapy as a substitute not only for political action but for perceiving reality itself. She analyses with unparalleled cogency the role of so-called female desire in democratising habits of sexual dominance: women becoming "sexual subjects as men are sexual subjects". She describes the corruption of the women's movement through the choice of some women to claim aggression, violence and the right to objectify in the sexual arena. The commodification of persons not just in the market but in intimate relations based on barter is lucidly identified: "What selling and buying are to private commerce, giving and taking are to the relationship trade." She shows how transactions of "giving and taking" rob women of autonomy and will.

Resistance to oppression is a consequence "of political will and action" that will result in an end to balkanised identities, not their reification. She believes that the legitimacy of violence can only be challenged by refusing to use violence. To me this last assertion is transparently true, yet inadequate in my world of 66 million hand guns, 73 million rifles, 62 million shotguns, and an unspecified number of semi-automatic machine guns, rapists and batterers. I have come to believe that resistance requires being willing to kill a predator; but I sure would like to be wrong. No position Kappeler puts forth can be ignored.

Andrea Dworkin is the author of PORNOGRAPHY: MEN POSSESSING WOMEN, INTERCOURSE, and the novels MERCY and ICE and FIRE.

Doubly Deviant, Doubly Damned: Society's Treatment of Violent Women

Author - Ann Lloyd
ISBN - 0 14 017934 8
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £6.99
Pages - 232

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