Khalid Masood, 52, born Adrian Russell Elms, drove across Westminster Bridge in 2017 mowing down pedestrians and stabbing to death PC Keith Palmer. He had a string of criminal convictions for offences involving violence but since 2003 he had done little to attract police attention. Instead, in Home Grown, Joan Smith argues that Masood had chosen to “privatise his aggressive behaviour, hiding it behind closed doors”, controlling and beating a succession of women.
Smith, a feminist and human rights activist, contends that if victims were believed, domestic abuse was better recognised, policed efficiently and addressed appropriately in court, then numerous acts of terrorism, committed in the name of religion, extreme ideology and misogyny, could – and can – be avoided. So why is this link ignored?
Among the examples she gives is Darren Osborne, who drove his van into a group of Muslims in London’s Finsbury Park; Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who carried out the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo; and Salman Abedi, who detonated a homemade bomb in the foyer of the Manchester Arena with such horrific consequences. Abedi, 17, had punched a fellow female student in the head, telling her that her skirt was too short; he went unpunished, leaving no warning sign, according to Smith’s theory, which could have provided invaluable information to the security forces.
One in five women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime
Childhood lives informed wholly or in part by misogyny, poverty, neglect, abuse and racism, Smith argues, shaped, for instance, “the Beatles”, the London gang members who joined Islamic State, the Kouachi brothers and murderous angry young white men such as 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, an “incel”, involuntary celibate. “I will destroy all women because I can never have them,” he declared in his manifesto before killing six and wounding 13 women and men in California in 2014.
Smith quotes Nazir Afzal, a solicitor and former chief crown prosecutor for the north-west of England who has been indefatigable in his pursuit of child sexual exploitation and violence against women: “The first victim of an extremist or terrorist is the woman in his own home.” He points out that 25,000 men are on the radar of police and the security services as potential terrorist threats. “You can’t monitor 25,000. But you shouldn’t have to. You already know which ones to target by flagging up violence against women as a high-risk factor.”
It’s hard to fault the logic: treat what police used to call “domestics” as the serious crime it is and you considerably improve the chances of saving the lives not only of wives, partners and former girlfriends but also members of the public. And yet there is a conundrum at the heart of Home Grown. It reads like a letter from the recent past. And while domestic abuse is a red flag, it is only part of a much more complex challenge. Smith herself asks why “… siblings from the same families grow up in equally damaging circumstances but don’t become abusers let alone terrorists”. Misogyny and terrorism don’t have to be infectious.
Domestic abuse (the reference to “violence” in the book’s title doesn’t allow for coercive control, stalking and harassment that leave no physical wounds but can inflict deep mental scars) is rife. One in five women will experience it in her lifetime. Smith has reported on the cumulative impact of misogyny and violence directed at women and girls for decades. Currently, she co-chairs the London mayor’s violence against women and girls board. In Home Grown, she writes that in the year ending March 2016, the police recorded more than 1 million domestic abuse cases in England and Wales, a fraction of the genuine extent of the crime. Systemic failures to arrest dangerous men continue; refuges are drastically underfunded. But there has been progress and paradoxically in refusing to surrender her pessimism, Smith does feminist activists and their supporters a disservice.
In the book, Smith repeatedly insists the scale and effects of domestic abuse “are played down or even denied altogether”. Attacks, she asserts, are explained away “as though violent men lack self-control and can’t help themselves”. She cites the stereotypes of women who are to blame for allegedly triggering violence – “nagging” wives. “Toxic masculinity,” she argues, “hasn’t received anything like sufficient attention.” Really? In the UK?
Forty years ago, sociologists, R Emerson Dobash and Russell Dobash published a seminal work, Violence Against Wives. “Women’s place in history has most often been at the receiving end of a blow,” they wrote. It was a time when “battered women” were deemed deviant and deserved what they got; men were believed to be innately aggressive. Domineering mothers created perpetrators who married frigid women. Nothing was a violent man’s fault. Presciently, the Dobashes discarded these dominant “theories”, challenged the patriarchy and demanded more “work on the subordination, isolation and devalued status of women in society… and change to the hierarchical family”.
If several large steps haven’t been taken in that direction, if negative female stereotypes aren’t challenged daily, if pressure isn’t constantly exerted on police and the judiciary to do more, if we now don’t have a better understanding of the impact of insecure childhoods, low self-esteem and economic stress in the makings of modern masculinity, then campaigners, #MeToo and women speaking out who have experienced abuse have made no progress at all. And they have.
In the final chapters of Home Grown, Smith offers her unsurprising recommendations, including better police training. She also acknowledges what may prove fruitful for even earlier identification of both potential abusers and terrorists. In the 1990s, research began, and continues, into adverse child experiences (Aces). Ten have been identified, including physical and emotional abuse and growing up in a household that is poor and/or with parents who have problems with drugs and/or alcohol. Four Aces flag up a vulnerable child who requires support that is sensitive to their trauma. The Scottish government, commendably, is adapting many of its policies accordingly.
Domestic abuse is rooted in inequality – that needs to be aggressively tackled but so, too, does bringing the right kind of help to boys such as the Kouachis long before they raise a hand in anger.
• Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists by Joan Smith is published by Quercus (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.comor call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99