Joan Smith

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.

October 8, 2019

It’s starting to be called “the third day”: that moment after a mass shooting or terrorist attack when the real story comes tumbling out. Time after time, an apparently inexplicable event, such as a man opening fire in a bar or stabbing co-workers with a knife, turns out to have the same back story — and it almost always involves extreme misogyny and a record of abusing women.

Acquaintances and colleagues reveal that the perpetrator, whose actions have official sources scratching their heads, has been sending out warning signals for months, if not years. It happened in August this year, when a 24-year-old man who murdered nine people in a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, turned out to have been previously suspended from high school for writing a list of boys he wanted to kill and girls he wanted to rape. Some of the teenage girls targeted by Connor Betts had refused to go on dates with him.

“There was a kill list and a rape list, and my name was on the rape list,” a former classmate recalled. A few years later, in the run-up to his rampage, Betts provided vocals for a ‘pornogrind’ band called the Menstrual Munchies, whose song titles include “6 Ways of Female Butchery”. Like many mass killers, Betts included a female relative — his only sister, Megan, 22 — among his victims.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that both mass murderers and terrorists hate women. Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 left behind a video and ‘manifesto’ railing against women who wouldn’t go on dates with him. Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, had previously turned in work full of violent fantasies, stalked female students and was caught ‘upskirting’ in class. Robert Dear Jnr, a domestic terrorist who murdered three people in Colorado Springs in 2015, had been accused of domestic violence, voyeurism and rape. I found many more examples when I was researching my book Home Grown, which looks at the history of dozens of men who went on to kill complete strangers.

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Despite all this, the post-attack trajectory from official incomprehension — what on earth inspired this apparently blameless individual to commit such an atrocity? — to a grudging admission of missed warning signs has become horribly familiar. It’s so routine, in fact, that I had begun to think I was used to it. But the sequence of events that followed last week’s horrific massacre at police headquarters in Paris — described as “a scene of extreme violence” by France’s anti-terrorist prosecutor, Jean-Francois Ricard — has me almost lost for words.

On Thursday, a civilian computer expert called Mickaël Harpon, 45, left his office near Notre Dame cathedral at lunchtime and purchased two kitchen knives. He then returned to police HQ, one of the most security-conscious buildings in Paris, and began hacking and slashing at colleagues in a rampage that lasted seven minutes. Four people died and a fifth person was gravely injured before Harpon was shot dead by a trainee police officer who had joined the force only six days earlier.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, France’s interior minister, Christophe Castaner, claimed that the attacker had “never shown any behavioural problems” or given the “slightest reason for alarm”. Yet it quickly emerged that Harpon, who had converted to Islam a decade earlier, had suddenly started refusing to speak to female colleagues about 18 months before the attack. I am resisting the urge to use block capitals here: this is not normal behaviour. Refusing to interact with women, other than family members, is a classic sign of a type of misogyny associated with Islamist extremism. How was such a huge red flag missed in a department whose very purpose is combating terrorism?

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It’s all the more startling because the scene of the crime was a police intelligence unit charged with tracking extremists. They had more reason than almost anyone in France to know that extreme misogyny was a missed warning signal in one of the most notorious terrorist attacks in recent years, the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in January 2015 in which 12 people died. The younger of the two perpetrators, Cherif Kouachi, had made a point of refusing to stand up in court before a female judge when he appeared on terrorist charges; his elder brother, Said, was sacked from his job with a local authority because he refused to shake hands with women.

By last Saturday — that crucial third day from the point of those who study such ghastly events — the idea that the massacre at police HQ in Paris was a purely criminal matter completely fell apart. The prosecutor, Ricard, revealed that Harpon was a radicalised Islamist who slit the throat of at least one of his victims. At police HQ, he was known to have expressed support for Islamist murders, including the Charlie Hebdo massacre. And, with a sickening sense of inevitability, we also learned that he had been taken to court in 2009 on charges of domestic violence.

The murder investigation is now in the hands of anti-terror police, a development that should surprise nobody. But the wider question of why misogyny is so often tolerated, misinterpreted or excused needs to be answered.

It isn’t just an issue for the French authorities. After Connor Betts’ list of potential rape victims was discovered at his school in Ohio, girls who were considered to be at risk were contacted and warned by the authorities. But Betts reappeared at the school without explanation a few months later, resuming lessons as though nothing had happened. Police records relating to the incident were sealed and later expunged, so it isn’t known why he didn’t face charges which might have prevented him acquiring firearms. The local school district has refused to release records that might show why he was re-admitted.

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In the UK, the violent misogyny of the Manchester Arena bomber, Salman Abedi, also failed to make it into official records. In May 2017, 22-year-old Abedi deliberately targeted a concert by the American singer Ariana Grande, who has a big following among teenage girls; this horrific attack resulted in the deaths of 22 people, three-quarters of them women and girls.

Five years earlier, Abedi had earned a reputation as a bully at the college he attended in south Manchester, targeting female staff and students in particular. Things took an even more alarming turn when Abedi punched a Muslim girl in the head for wearing a short skirt, yet he wasn’t charged with assault; the incident, which took place at college and in front of witnesses, was dealt with via ‘restorative justice’ where the perpetrator agrees to sit down with and apologise to his victim. This unequivocal evidence of an Islamist-inspired form of misogyny wasn’t even referred to Channel, the strand of the Prevent programme designed to deal with radicalised individuals.

After writing a book about misogyny at the beginning of my career, I know how often it is normalised or explained away. But that was a long time ago and it’s become clear, in the intervening period, that misogyny is even more dangerous than I originally thought. The men I’ve mentioned in this article made no secret of their contempt for women, openly displaying it at school, in college and at work. They rightly believed they would get away with it — and they went on to murder 35 people in three countries, as well as injuring hundreds of others.

If police and counter-terrorism agencies want to forestall future attacks, they need to recognise extreme misogyny as a warning sign — and put individuals who threaten and abuse women at the top of their suspects list.