Why doesn't shooting girls count as a hate crime?

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert is mad as hell about the dehumanization of women and girls.

Published October 16, 2006 2:54PM (EDT)

Thank heaven for New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who was among the first voices in the mainstream media to look at the recent shooting deaths of five Amish girls as attacks based on gender instead of just inexplicable psycho violence. Most media coverage of the incident has highlighted the school-violence angle and downplayed -- or even overlooked -- the fact that shooter Charles Carl Roberts deliberately targeted only girls. As Herbert wrote in an opinion piece on Monday, "Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews. There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime."

When Broadsheet covered the issue two weeks ago, we saw the killings much the way Herbert does, but we were in the minority -- later that week, Ms. Magazine's wire service noted that analysis of the targeted killings was mostly restricted to the feminist blogosphere. Herbert suggests that most media outlets glossed over the victims' gender because we've all become desensitized to violence against women and girls: "[No outcry] occurred," he wrote, "because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls."

Herbert goes on to blame our era's biggest bugaboos: the sexualization of children, the misogyny of bitch-and-'ho gangsta rap, video games that reward violence against women, and, of course, Internet porn. As an example of the ill effects these trends have wrought, he cites the murder of the 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, whose "sexualized image" our culture has been captivated by for 10 years. But Herbert doesn't flag an important contradiction: We're quite capable of making the murders or disappearances of individual (usually white) girls like Ramsey or Natalee Holloway into national obsessions. Americans just don't seem to rise to the occasion when it comes to a group murder in an Amish schoolhouse. Why is that?

I'd argue that it's precisely because the schoolhouse killings are a clear-cut instance of targeted violence against girls. Ramsey and Holloway (and Elizabeth Smart and Laci Peterson and Chandra Levy) were individuals who may have been in danger because of their unique circumstances. And because their cases featured lots of mystery and investigation, they were easier to construct breathless, speculative crime narratives about. By contrast, it's harder to sensationalize, romanticize and even fetishize the deaths of several Amish schoolgirls who were in danger because they happened to attend the wrong school. These five deaths remind us not only that some people want to harm women and girls indiscriminately, but that many people would rather not see those crimes for what they are. Indeed, plenty of people would prefer to think our culture has no problem with women and girls -- or that we did maybe have some systematic sexism issues at one time, but now it's over, and domestic violence and sexual harassment and workplace discrimination are illegal, and what more do you want? American misogyny and the related objectification of women are the great invisible, mechanisms for eroding the status of women and girls that work best when they're not identified as such.

So: a big thanks to Bob Herbert for identifying them as such! And for confronting those who'd rather shield their eyes from the problem. "You're deluded if you think this is all about fun and games," he writes. "It's all part of a devastating continuum of misogyny that at its farthest extreme touches down in places like the one-room Amish schoolhouse in normally quiet Nickel Mines, Pa."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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