the body politic

What Mass Killers Really Have in Common

Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, Robert Lewis Dear
Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, Robert Lewis Dear Photo: Getty; AP; Getty

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Thursday, Republican Newt Gingrich, perhaps still hoping (in vain, it turns out) to be tapped by Donald Trump as a vice-presidential nominee, amplified Trump’s past calls to round up Muslim suspects in an effort to stop future terrorist violence. Gingrich said that “Western civilization is in a war,” and suggested that “we should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.” Muslims who do not believe in Sharia law, Gingrich continued, would be welcome.

But if Trump and Gingrich are truly looking to stem terrorism and mass violence of the sort that happened in Nice, they might do better to look to a different kind of litmus test: domestic violence and grievances against women. Early reports suggest that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who drove a rented truck through a crowd of Bastille Day revelers on Thursday night, killing more than 80 including at least ten children, may not have been devout, but he did have a criminal record of domestic violence. A neighbor claimed he would “rant about his wife,” who left him two years ago.

This history of domestic violence puts Bouhlel in the horrific company of many mass murderers. Omar Mateen, who last month killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting at an Orlando gay club, had an extensive history of domestic abuse. His former wife has claimed that in addition to taking her paychecks and forbidding her from leaving the house, Mateen also beat her if she failed to live up to traditional wifely responsibilities.

And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that killers with Muslim backgrounds have uniquely bad histories with women, recall that Robert Lewis Dear, the devout Christian who killed three people and wounded nine at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic in November, had a lengthy history of violence against women, including a 1992 arrest for rape and sexual violence. According to the Washington Post, two of his three ex-wives had accused him of domestic abuse.

When Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage in Southern California in 2014, killing seven, including himself, he left a video in which he detailed his fury, particularly at women who had rejected him. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it …You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male.”

Dylann Roof’s racist massacre of nine churchgoers in Charleston last year was tinged with a sense of patriarchal control over women: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go,” he said to his African-American victims; Roof had been raised in a home in which his father had emotionally and physically abused his stepmother. After Adam Lanza killed 20 school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, investigators found a Word document on his computer in which he had written about why women were inherently selfish. Even Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had complained about being rejected by a woman.

Recent research done by Everytown for Gun Safety has found that of the mass shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2015, 57 percent included victims who were a family member, spouse, or former spouse of the shooter. Sixteen percent of attackers had been previously charged with domestic violence. A recent piece in the New York Times suggested that the impulse toward domestic, gendered violence may be the thing that draws a few terrorists toward the Islamic State, since ISIS’s practices include sexual slavery and a fidelity to traditional gender norms as recruiting tools for young men.

But that doesn’t make any religion — whether it’s Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s Islam or Robert Lewis Dear’s evangelical Christianity — the defining factor in mass shootings. Perhaps these disturbed men — and 98 percent of mass killers are men — are drawn to the patriarchal traditions upheld by some religions to make sense of or justify their anger and resentment toward women. But we might do better to examine the patterns of violence toward women themselves.

What Mass Killers Really Have in Common