[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Good news for our fledging offspring, Dispatch Books! Our newest volume, Rebecca Solnit's incandescent Men Explain Things to Me, published only a week ago, is already a California bestseller. It just hit both the Northern and Southern California Indie Bestseller Lists, the very week she also went on Democracy Now! to discuss feminism in light of the Isla Vista killings. For those of you who, after reading today's piece, would like a personalized, signed copy of her incredibly timely book, a visit to the TD donation page and a $100 contribution is all that's needed. The offer remains open for now. Tom]
Where was the NSA? That's the question former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren recently asked at his We Meant Well blog -- and it couldn't be a smarter one. After all, the Isla Vista killer, Elliot Rodgers, made both his own sense of disturbance and his urge for "retribution" against women quite public before he went on his terror spree. Shouldn't the agency, whose unofficial motto ("collect it all") seems to be meant quite literally, have noticed his messages to the world?
Given the ridiculous mass of human communications the NSA collects, both domestically and globally, perhaps not. But one reason its employees might not have been paying attention was that Rodgers wasn't an Islamic jihadist-in-the-making or an al-Qaeda wannabe. He didn't fall among the few fringe figures since 9/11 who have committed domestic acts of Islamic terror, including Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who slaughtered 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, the Tsarnaev brothers who briefly terrorized Boston, or Faisal Shahzad who managed to get a car bomb into New York's Times Square. Of course, it's worth remembering that the agency American taxpayers support to the tune of almost $11 billion a year and that has made surveillance in the name of "safety" part of the American way of life somehow missed them, too! Still, for the NSA one thing is clear enough: the Elliot Rodgers of this world may blow Americans away in numbers that put the casualty counts for what we call "domestic terrorism" to shame, but they aren't considered "terrorists" and the war they are engaged in -- against women -- doesn't qualify for any "war on terror."
The numbers tell a grim story when it comes to this sort of terror in American life. Among other things, if you're adding up casualties in this unnamed war, 1,500 women are murdered annually by their husbands or boyfriends. That adds up to a 9/11-sized disaster every two years. On the other side of things, in the wake of the killings in Isla Vista, California, and without the NSA stepping in to botch things up, the response to such terror has been extraordinary, and Rebecca Solnit, whose new Dispatch Book, Men Explain Things to Me, focuses on just what violence against women means in our society, offers her usual highly original look at ways in which women (and some men) are reconceiving our world and the horrors in it. Tom
Our Words Are Our Weapons
The Feminist Battle of the Story in the Wake of the Isla Vista Massacre
By Rebecca Solnit
It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the usual net called Isolated Event. To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream's goalie shouted "mental illness" again and again. That "ball," of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.
All weekend the struggle to define his acts raged. Voices in the mainstream insisted he was mentally ill, as though that settled it, as though the world were divided into two countries called Sane and Crazy that share neither border crossings nor a culture. Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.
In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they're more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal-defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately, put it, "When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it's immersed in -- the surrounding culture's illness."
The murderer at Isla Vista was also repeatedly called "aberrant," as if to emphasize that he was nothing like the rest of us. But other versions of such violence are all around us, most notably in the pandemic of hate toward and violence against women.
In the end, this struggle over the meaning of one man's killing spree may prove to be a watershed moment in the history of feminism, which always has been and still is in a struggle to name and define, to speak and be heard. "The battle of the story" the Center for Story-Based Strategy calls it, because you win or lose your struggle in large part through the language and narrative you use.
As media critic Jennifer Pozner put it in 2010 about another massacre by a woman-hating man,
"I am sick to death that I have to keep writing some version of this same article or blog post on loop. But I have to, because in all of these cases, gender-based violence lies at the heart of these crimes -- and leaving this motivating factor uninvestigated not only deprives the public of the full, accurate picture of the events at hand, but leaves us without the analysis and context needed to understand the violence, recognize warning signs, and take steps to prevent similar massacres in the future."
The Isla Vista murderer took out men as well as women, but blowing away members of a sorority seems to have been the goal of his rampage. He evidently interpreted his lack of sexual access to women as offensive behavior by women who, he imagined in a sad mix of entitlement and self-pity, owed him fulfillment.
Richard Martinez, the father of one of the young victims, spoke powerfully on national TV about gun control and the spinelessness of the politicians who have caved to the gun lobby, as well as about the broader causes of such devastation. A public defender in Santa Barbara County, he has for decades dealt with violence against women, gun users, and mental illness, as does everyone in his field. He and Christopher Michaels-Martinez's mother, a deputy district attorney, knew the territory intimately before they lost their only child. The bloodbath was indeed about guns and toxic versions of masculinity and entitlement, and also about misery, cliche, and action-movie solutions to emotional problems. It was, above all, about the hatred of women.