I'd been meaning to read Bob Herbert's New York Times' column since Friday, entitled Women at Risk. This morning, I finally read the piece. Herbert was responding to the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh, in which a man opened fire on an aerobics class at the gym he belonged to, shooting many women and then himself. Herbert writes: "We have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected."
I almost can't breathe. Even without statistics to tell us about the pervasiveness of violence toward women, in real life–as assaults from strangers, as domestic abuse–in the media–as "entertainment" in countless forms from network crime shows to pornography–the heft of that evidence is why I felt both so devastated and so numb when I heard about the health club shooting, which I learned about as a news headline on the radio. The headline was a couple of sentences at most, at once stark and sensational.
In order to blunt some of the shock, you can almost roll your eyes and think, here we go again. You can play a mini-newsreel in your mind's eye, and put in your own highlights, from Columbine to Virgina Tech, an Amish schoolhouse, any number of banks, a post office… Wasn't there a shooting less than week earlier targeting gay and lesbian youth? (Answer: yes.) When I heard about the Tel Aviv gay youth, I wondered whether there would be an uproar if a shooting occurred that targeted women. I assumed the answer would be yes. I didn't want to find out, though. And I certainly didn't want the answer to be no. But there's little question the answer–this week, and in general–is no.
I also felt like giving my feelings a big shove, pushing them away, because, in truth, a shooter entering an aerobic class–I could flash to a specific club, a specific classroom, a specific song if I wanted to–hit way too close to home. There was no otherness to that scene, which I could conjure in less than a split second. I spent too many 5:30-7 slots and too many Saturday mornings sweating and whooping it up with (almost exclusively) women for it not to imprint. Although these days, I generally spend those particular hours closer to home–dinner time, homework, soccer practice, play dates–it's a much more immediate setting than a bank lobby or the classrooms in a large school. In a way, that random shooter in the aerobics classroom seems more immediate than feeling threatened by violence in my own home, even, a place I'm exceedingly fortunate to feel safe in. A flash-freeze occurred in the pit of my stomach when I heard the news and my response was not to pay attention, and feel that cold, but to want to step as far away from the sensation as possible by somehow overriding it. Wasn't it warm outside? Wasn't I getting groceries?
If you override these things you know in the pit of your stomach, you can never be an agent of change.
Herbert writes: "Soon after the Virginia Tech slayings, I interviewed Dr. James Gilligan, who spent many years studying violence as a prison psychiatrist in Massachusetts and as a professor at Harvard and N.Y.U. 'What I’ve concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal,' he said, 'is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one’s manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act.'"
As a parent raising boys to feel comfortable in their boyhod and free to wear pink or have long hair or aren't on the "best" team reads that quote and wants to commit that much more strongly to nurturing both boys and their parents to open up the notion of manhood so narrowly defined that domination has to be part of it in response to some sort of defeat. In a way, that response is deep inside the onion, layers in. Immediately pressing are the statistics that remind us a girl or woman is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes. We should know that a stressor like war–our military is lead participant in two currently–increases violence toward women, and that these increases are happening in the countries where war continues, and also toward women serving in the military and toward military spouses and girlfriends in staggering numbers (like aftershocks of the initial violence carried out thousands of miles from home). What's more, rampant violence can be blamed in part on the fact that guns are exceedingly easy to obtain. Why, after each and every shooting in the United States aren't we rallying–hard, loud, without apology–for gun control? There's a goddamn big onion here to peel, people. Tears, those stinging onion-cutting tears, should be flowing very freely.
What happened this week should compel us to having to address so many things at once. The first step: acknowledge that when half the population is at risk–simply for being female–it almost doesn't matter where we start, just that we start.