A Year of Traditional Brutalities

December 16, 2012

Tags: Sandy Hook Elementary School, Antisocial Masculinity, school shooting

The Sandy Hook Shooting, has sparked debates on gun control, popular culture and accessible mental health care.

But the unifying problem—the one that is missing from this discourse—is gender, the fact that nearly without exception violent crimes and mass murders are committed by men.

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman has called for a national commission on mass violence saying we need to better understand the causes in order to prevent it and President Obama has promised to lead a national effort bringing together police, parents and educators.

But the starting point in any investigation of extreme violence needs to begin with the Y chromosome, an examination of how aberrant behavior in men can become lethal and an understanding of how violence is cultivated and even glorified when it suits the needs of the state.

The problem of anti-social masculinity must be taken seriously. What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a horror but it was far from an isolated event. Men have entered schools and killed children before. Shooting them, stabbing them, and in the case of the Beslen school siege in Russia taking them as political hostages before murdering one hundred and fifty-six of them. In July of this year a Norwegian man killed ninety-two teenagers and young adults at a youth camp in Utoya.

Mass murder is not strictly an American problem. But the numbers are still staggering.

Every year in this country three thousand women are murdered by their intimate partners. By the end of this year another one million physical assaults, rapes, and murders will have been committed by men; against other men, against women and against children.

Boys and men are uniquely at a risk for committing acts of extreme brutality. The link between gender and violence should be examined instead of seen as an inevitable, unsolvable, mystery, or a problem that might be fixed if a particular kind of weapon is taken away.

A system of screening that could identify potential problems in boys early enough to help them and to save the lives of others would go a long way, as would teaching empathy in schools and using common sense about exposing children to attitudes and images that equate power and masculinity with violence and killing.

Without an serious, scientific examination of the links between gender and violence, the price of men's biological and cultural burdens will continue to be paid in children’s blood.


  1. December 17, 2012 2:52 AM EST
    Thank you, Cara. As a man with a history of violence in my family it is hard to make clear to other men just how embedded the instinct to attack is within all of us. There is sport in violence and pleasure and passion in it. How does a carnal man redress himself in the light of a new dimension that you are calling for? There is the taint of elitism in it. It is like a Christian plea in purest form. I can see it no other way when we speak of "Love" in this fashion. Franklin Crawford
    - franklin crawford
  2. December 17, 2012 9:18 AM EST
    Cara, As usual your blog is clearly stated and makes perfect sense to me. Your intelligent mind sees beyond the ordinary response to the root of a problem. Thank you for putting into words what needs to be said, so beautifully, for all of us.
    Annie Campbell
    - annie campbell
  3. December 17, 2012 10:18 AM EST
    I agree that we need to look at the complex causes of violence that stem, largely from men. Yet understanding the aberrations of when women commit atrocities also helps us better discern how to move toward a peaceful society.
    I have studied violence, sexual and physical, and the dependency of gender of perpetrator and victim on outcomes. My dissertation was on trying to identify the turning point when men over ride a woman's right to decide not to have sex, and my thesis was on the role of gender in alcohol related aggression. I want to understand how we move toward an end to the violence. I believe that limiting access to guns and ammunition is a critical part of that process, and deepening our sense of being interdependent on one another. It is this aspect of humanity that I sense is weakening and which strengthening can help men (and the errant women) become less able to perpetrate violence.
    - Lisa Strayer
  4. December 17, 2012 10:22 AM EST
    A far more complicated issue to tackle than gun control or mental health, which is why it continues (and likely will continue) to go unresolved on a large scale. That, and the fact that most of the individuals who are in a position to bring it to a large scale either don't recognize this as an issue or don't care to make it one.

    You rock.
    - Erin Kelly
  5. December 17, 2012 10:23 AM EST
    Interesting blog, you chose to point out gender, which facts do support, yet you ignored race, which facts also support. Interesting, I commend you on your writings
    - Zemrag Skrap @ twitter
  6. December 17, 2012 12:00 PM EST
    So glad you're opening up this conversation about gender and mass shootings. What I find really complicated and interesting is precisely the link between the kinds of behaviors that we cultivate and support in our culture and the biological/developmental reality that the most dangerous forms of mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.) tend to present in young men between ages 18-25. Young men become our best weapons as a nation at the very moment their brains are most susceptible to developing mental illness. So, this is a concrete example of the sex/gender binary sort of collapsing inward -- when we have to look at both masculinity as we construct it and (as you put it) the Y chromosome simultaneously -- even as mental health professionals still don't know the full story about the genetic components of mental illness.
    - YK
  7. December 17, 2012 12:10 PM EST
    Brilliant observation YK, thanks for writing!
    - Cara Hoffman
  8. December 17, 2012 4:23 PM EST
    Great piece Cara. However, I would say it's not the Y chromosome per se. Our culture needs to address the way we - women included - socialize men and boys. Assault rifles are not toys, glorifying acts of violence in film and games does nothing to increase empathy and sensitivity, and the traumas that occur to boys are rarely addressed by either their mothers or fathers. Boys are raped, assaulted and abused, hurt and humiliated by other men as well as women and unless their pain is addressed and we teach boys how to deal with their emotions versus act them out we can expect more of the same - especially when assault rifles are easily accessible.

    Beslan by the way included two women hostage takers, and Nord Ost was made up of half women terrorists, In Beslan, one quarter of the men who went there had endured "ethnic cleansing" and had as young adolescents been forced to watch their women being raped and having their breasts cut off. Years later they remained clearly traumatized and were enacting revenge in taking part in the Beslan event. See my book Talking to Terrorists for the full story...
    - Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.
  9. December 17, 2012 5:02 PM EST
    Thank you Anne for your insight. I'm so glad you wrote. I agree that the way boys are socialized and react to trauma is a big part of the complex social biological problem. Very interested in reading Talking to Terrorists.
    - Cara Hoffman
  10. December 21, 2012 5:01 AM EST
    You're seriously muddying the waters by throwing Beslen into the mix. That was an act carried out by a group of militants, a group that has made and does make use of female suicide bombers. The Riyad-us Saliheen Brigade is a group motivated by ideology and I don't think it's pertinent to loop it into a discussion that is otherwise focused on the acts of individuals who, in most cases, appear to have no political agenda (especially where U.S. mass shootings are concerned).

    I take your point that most male animals -- be they humans or polar bears -- are genetically designed to fight, and to die sooner than the female. But I'm uncertain about making the leap to suggest that it means males are more prone to mental illness.
    - Chris Cope
  11. December 21, 2012 9:14 AM EST
    Thanks for your comment Chris.
    I appreciate your sentiments about Beslen but I chose the example for a reason. The majority of politically and ideologically motivated violence is carried out by men.
    Like the men who planned and executed the events at Beslen, who were in turn reacting to other acts of extreme violence carried out by men. The fact that two women were involved does not change that.

    Also there is no suggestion anywhere in the essay that men are more prone to mental illness--just that they are at an extremely high risk for committing acts of violence, which as you point out may be rooted in genetics.

    My point is simply that in order to find solutions to anti-social masculinity and male aggression it needs to be studied not accepted as normal. Otherwise we accept the price of living with men to be "politically motivated" massacre and random acts of brutality committed on a regular basis by the gender.
    - Cara Hoffman