How white supremacist hatred drives acts of violence against powerful women

Murderous extremists like Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof are the ugliest faces of a worldwide war against women

Published December 6, 2016 9:59AM (EST)

Anders Behring ; Dylann Roff   (AP/Frank Augstein/Chuck Burton)
Anders Behring ; Dylann Roff (AP/Frank Augstein/Chuck Burton)

Last Wednesday Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine black people at a prayer meeting in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, was declared mentally competent to stand trial.

This ruling came only days after a British judge sentenced Thomas Mair, who murdered a leftist Labour Party member of parliament named Jo Cox, to life in prison. The judge noted that Cox’s murder was a political act of white supremacy and “exclusive nationalism" rooted in “Nazism in its modern forms.”

Both men involved in these murders had ties to sprawling, amorphous online white-supremacy networks and clearly articulated white supremacist objectives in their attacks. While flung across the globe and often at odds, these communities (a combination of Nazi, white supremacist and nativist movements that often spill into men’s rights activities) share core beliefs: They see gender equality; racial, sexual and religious diversity; globalism and multiculturalism as existential threats to white Western culture. Jews and Muslims, in their estimation, are often also seen as equally and dangerous and corrupting, powerfully intent on wreaking havoc on Christian culture.

One of the bibles of this movement is a document written by Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011. Breivik, thought of by many on the extreme far right to be a “hero of the white race,” described his killing spree as his “book launch.” His 1,518-page nativist manifesto, "2083: A European Declaration of Independence," made clear how ideas about women and gender equality are important to understanding white male supremacist objectives and the threat they pose. The misogyny of this movement and its relationship to racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia, however, continues to be erased or overlooked in media accounts.

Using words commonly employed by more mainstream conservatives who do not commit mass murder, Breivik wrote that women have achieved a “privileged status.” He explained that women are oppressing European men by “bestowing privileges on other chosen groups of victims through polices of affirmative action.”And “the fate of European civilization,” he asserted, “depends on European men,” who are “steadfastly resisting Politically Correct feminism.” He deplored the “multicultural elite” and the feminization of culture. Despite his holding these ideas and his saying that he sought to “reinstate patriarchy,” Time magazine’s coverage of his killing spree mentioned none of it.

In trickle-down political narratives, expressions like “privileged status” and “politically correct” are barely veiled proxies for “elites.” Railing against “elites” sounds like a broad-based and gender-blind issue, which could equally be applied to snooty rich WASPs, leftist college professors, influential Jews or racially diverse urbanites, but it has always also been historically coded as “female” and “feminized.”

During the French Revolution, for example, “elites” were the corrupt and immoral court, weakened by the influence of a dangerous woman. Noblemen, sullied by femininity, were foppish, wore perfume and sumptuous, bright and frivolous clothes. “Elite” became a term associated with the emasculation of men and the French national identity. Revolutionary citizens, a group that rapidly excluded women, dressed themselves in the unadorned, stripped-down, markedly masculine and somber antecedents of today’s men’s suits.

Populist outrage today is similarly focused on a feminized “elite” — the intelligentsia and liberal media — whereby women and notably Jews are at the vanguard of the “cultural Marxism” portrayed as threatening America. This includes liberal politicians (in this election, led by a woman) who “don’t understand” the real America.

Women around the world are now competing successfully with men instead of complementing or supporting them. Regardless of politics, women are more likely to advocate for changes to the status quo. Women politicians disproportionately favor economies of social care, not private protections that preserve patriarchal entitlements. As voters, women are more committed to safety nets, better education, cleaner environments, reproductive justice, legal reforms to address violence and similar changes, particularly if they are women of color.

In the U.S., women spearhead fights against voter suppression, for bank reform and against sexual violence in the military, prisons and on campuses. Women founded Black Lives Matter and are leaders in the Dakota Access pipeline protests and immigration movements. Just the fact that women are engaged in these fights makes them “elite” in this worldview.

Education leads to ideas about rights. So the focus of backlash politics and violence, in global terms, is often on the educated and on dismantling or targeting schools. Most people think of school violence when linked to violence against women and girls specifically as an “over there” issue, such as the shooting of Malala Yousafzai and her classmates, the acid thrown on female Afghan students under the Taliban, the Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls.

The idea that educated girls threaten men knows no borders, however. The 1989 Montreal massacre and the 2006 Amish schoolhouse killings, for example, were explicit expressions of antifeminism. Last year before murdering six people, Elliot Rodger set out to punish “blonde sorority sluts” at the University of California, Santa Barbara after issuing a detailed manifesto in which he described elaborate fantasies about caging up women for rape and forced breeding.

Despite case after case of demonstrable hatred and targeting of women, the nature of this violence is routinely rendered invisible in media. The idea that educated women are dangerous has benign roots in mainstream “boy crisis in education” narratives, usually interpreted to ignore race and class and suggest that girls’ and women’s education is harmful to boys and men and degrades their rights. In other words, educated women and girls are somehow oppressive. It’s hard to overstate how much these ideas contribute to the aggrieved entitlement on public display today.

In the U.S., girls and women are twice as likely to die in school shootings as boys or men. During the past 30 years, 97 percent of the school shooters in the U.S. have been male, with 79 percent of them white.  That the media has failed to attach relevance to these clear facts is “identity politics” that few people even notice. School violence can’t be understood or stemmed without understanding the role of the gender and race of shooters. Reluctance to consider these central issues is directly related to a lack of diversity in mainstream media ownership, management and production.

In the same vein, white male supremacist ideologies filtered through legitimizing media and religion animate both anti-abortion and racial terror. In Breivik’s, Mair’s and Roof’s estimation — a view shared, at least in spirit, by many mainstream conservatives — the nation is entirely conflated with whiteness and maleness. That nation is being emasculated by changes in the social order related to gender, gender identity, sexuality, race or ethnicity, and white people are facing racial subjugation by being out-reproduced. Their families, culture and social dominance are at risk of being destroyed by darker non-Christians and non-Europeans.

Moderate or mainstream conservatives would never frame the issues this way, but their social and economic policies are optimized to ensure that the people who are most disempowered and impoverished are women and minorities. In the U.S., we have the highest rates of maternal mortality in the “developed world.” What this means in practice is black and brown women, those who also experience the greatest wage gaps and most severe inequality, are dying.

In overwhelmingly white, Christian communities, birth can become fetishized by way of mantras like “Motherhood is the most important job in the world” that threaten to turn women into dangerous enemies to their fetuses. Cultivating racialized and ethnic fears of violence against white women — rape by nonwhite men as a source of polluted paternity, symbolic theft and invasion — is a central tenet. Homophobia can be pervasive, since gay sex is nonreproductive and therefore seen as unwholesome.

Becoming self-appointed policing agents who exact vigilante justice is a matter of following this kind of logic to its extreme. Robert Dear, charged with 179 crimes after killing three people and injuring nine at a Colorado abortion clinic last year, calls himself a “warrior for the babies,” protecting them from their mothers.

“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” Roof explained while he killed six black women and three men. This racialized fear was evident in an all-female jury’s exoneration of George Zimmerman, a man whom Roof openly admired. Promises to eject immigrants, register Muslims, build a wall to stop Mexican “rapists,” punish women who get abortions and develop policies leading to the increased incarceration of blacks all exist along a spectrum of “patriotic” white border-patrol masculinity. (Women are involved in white supremacist movements, but their roles and attitudes vary greatly from those of men.)

It’s also logical, through this distorted lens, that women who violate codes of conduct, by becoming political actors and claiming “male” power, are traitors. And violence against traitors is justified.

When asked to state his name in court at the beginning of the trial of Mair, the killer of Jo Cox, he replied, "Death to traitors." Breivik, too, openly advocated killing women as traitors. This reasoning explains how thousands of mainly white Americans could chant that they would “lock up” Hillary Clinton while parading effigies of her in cages.

It’s why a New Hampshire state representative could say, “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason” and why a West Virginia Republican lawmaker tweeted, “she should be 'hung' in the national mall.”

By the end of the presidential race, it was “normal” at rallies for Donald Trump to hear, even from the candidate himself, that Clinton deserved to be publicly humiliated, jailed or killed. As one supporter explained, “Hillary needs to be taken out. . . . I'll do everything in my power to take her out of power, and if I have to be a patriot, I will."

For women in politics, threats of violence are real every day. A recent report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union revealed that more than 40 percent of women parliamentarians have been threatened with death, rape, beatings or abduction. This includes threats being made against their children, whom they are made to understand they are endangering by speaking out loud in public. Earlier this year, the National Democratic Institute launched a new program, #NotTheCost, to better understand and stem violence against women in politics.

This, too, is mainly thought of as something that happens to women in other countries.

In the U.S., Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in public, like Jo Cox, although she survived. Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore state attorney who sought to prosecute police officers after the death of Freddie Gray, took on a fraternal order that remains 88 percent male and overwhelmingly white. She has been barraged by obscene threats of violence against her and her family. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts is the target of regular threats and was "swatted," a dangerous situation too easily described by media as a “hoax.”

After three women city council members in Seattle voted against an ordinance to approve a new basketball arena, they were overwhelmed by messages of sexist rage. After getting messages like, “You cunt. You whore. You bitch. You don’t know anything,” the women had to be assigned police escorts. The New York Times article about their situation included only the most anodyne of the messages.

Members of the Big Country Oilmen's Association in Canada set up a cutout of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley so golfers could smash her visage with balls. Trump supporters routinely enacted violence against representations of Clinton. Casual and “harmless” dehumanization is how almost all prominent women are turned into objects of violent and deliberately debasing pornography.

Gabrielle Giffords’ assailant, Jared Loughner, also associated with patriotic militia movements and the far right, expressed the idea that women are not capable of and should not hold political office. Most conservatives will say they don’t believe it’s important for women to have political representation or efficacy. Many believe, as does Vice President-elect Mike Pence, that women who leave their children to work or run for office are dangerous and stunt their children’s emotional growth. These ideas are why Congress is almost bereft of women and people of color, and why the country now ranks 78th in the world for women in politics. (This is a drop from 52nd in 1997 that has been largely effected by a 20-year loss of women leaders on the right.)

While the vast majority of conservative people would never tessellate their beliefs into overt statements of sexism or racism, let alone killing, the fact that so many hold similar beliefs in women’s “proper roles” and resist understanding systemic racism legitimizes white supremacist thought and violence.

Last week, Roof was granted the right to represent himself in court, leading to the cruel and absurd scenario that people who survived his racist attack will have to answer his questions. Roof’s ideas and opinions, and those of the communities that cultivated him, have been at least partly legitimized by the fact that Donald Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, the man who made Breitbart into “the platform for the alt-right,” to a key White House position.

A news report from this past weekend from the Finnish town of Imatra indicated that a 23-year-old lone gunman apparently shot three women in the head and chest with a shotgun: One was the mayor of the town and two were journalists for the local paper. According to initial reports, police have drawn the conclusion that that since the shooter did not appear to know the three women personally, the killings were "random."

By Soraya Chemaly

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