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  • Writer's pictureACTIVHISTorian

A Woman is Dead But the Perpetrator is Not a Danger??

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

UPDATED: 1/3/23: FINALLY: A suspect arrested. For a few insights on related issues, see Julia Cooke's guest essay in the New York Times (online: 12/28/22; print: 1/3/23), "Call this violence what it is." However, although she addresses the issue of "crimes of passion" as a farce, plenty more issues to be addressed.

More than a week (we can now say: almost a month...) after the killings of four University of Idaho students, no one has been arrested, no weapon has been found, and everyone seems stumped. Why might that be?

More to the point for this post, why in the world did the police state for days after the crime, that the department "does not believe there is an ongoing community risk," then that there is, "no imminent threat to the community at large." They don't know who did it, they don't know why, but they are willing to state something they can't possibly know is true. Why do that? Many students, however, understood the fallacy and left the area. As of December 3, 2022, many students have not returned to campus after Thanksgiving break and classrooms are half-empty. Many remain afraid.

In 2007, when a gunman slaughtered students at Virginia Tech, police responded similarly when they discovered the first, then second, victim. Not unlike Moscow, Idaho police, Chief Flinchum, Virginia Tech campus police chief, said that "initially officials thought that the shooting was 'domestic,' suggesting that it was between individuals who knew each other, and isolated to the dormitory. He said that campus was not shut down after the first shooting because authorities thought that the attacker may have left the campus, or even the state." So many levels of bad analysis. After all if a man murders A woman, how in the world could he be a threat to anyone else? It must be personal and only personal and the murderer could not possibly harm others. Why does anyone think that is clear thinking?

Of course, he was indeed a danger to everyone else and killed 32 people (and himself), wounding 17 others, with a few others injured as they jumped from classroom windows.

That was the day I began assessing every classroom and building I entered on my own campus and realized that like Professor Liviu Lebrescu--who survived the Holocaust and a dictatorship, but not an April day in his engineering classroom where he was murdered--I might one day need to give my life so that my students might survive an attack that my university would do nothing to prevent. And no, having us take a short online "training" that is irrelevant for the rooms we actually teach in is not prevention.

That day forever haunts me, especially when I spent so many years following it in rooms and in buildings where there would have been no hope for any of us if a shooter had decided to do likewise. But hey, if a woman is found dead in a dorm next to the building I'm teaching in, why worry? Must be a "crime of passion" that is irrelevant to anyone else. We seem to have learned nothing, even since 2007 let alone from the wider arc of historical examples where the death of a woman means something quite different than the death of a man.

In Idaho, Chief of Police, James Fry, said in November, "I can't say if the person's here; I can't say what community the person's in." This is after an initial comment by Moscow's mayor that this was a "crime of passion." Really? How exactly would the mayor know that? He walked that back too. But even if it were, we all know what that means: a man kills a woman due to jealousy and you know, it's somehow understandable. That's just sloppy thinking.

When women are murder victims--and in this case it was not only women who were murdered--too often too many assume the killer is not endangering anyone else. Murders of women are often committed by people who know them, but why assume that means the murderer is a threat to no one else? What possible evidence has led police and others to think that? How many mass shootings have occurred after the murderer has already killed a family member? One study exposed that between 2014-19, 59.1% of mass shootings were domestic-violence-related and in 68.2% of mass shootings, the perpetrator either killed at least one partner or family member or had a history of domestic violence.

Or is it that what is really being said is a version of: Of course men will get jealous and they can get angry and kill a woman. That is, the potential murder is considered within the realm of understandable, even normal--even as the criminal justice system may still prosecute. But how many defense attorneys use the language of "passion" and outrage, as if those who hate a woman or all women are justified when committing murder? And given the racial demographics of Moscow, Idaho, University of Idaho, and those living in the home where the murders took place, might we imagine the many ways "facts" can be misunderstood by the police and others when the victims are not white? When Chief of Police Fry said, ". . . I can't say what community the person's in," was he talking about geography and a possible threat or was he talking about race and ethnicity?

Perhaps someday, when a murder takes place, when no suspect is in custody and no weapon has been recovered, whoever did it will indeed be considered a threat no matter what. Until then, notice the gendered and often enough, racialized, language surrounding these too-frequent events.

Related Items of Interest

Geller, L.B., M. Booty & C. K. Crifasi. (2021). The role of domestic violence in fatal mass shootings in the United States, 2014–2019. Injury Epidemiol 8, 38.

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