Joan Smith at the Festival of Ideas – Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men into Terrorists

Our Community Reporter Laura Hillier attended a talk by the writer, journalist and human rights campaigner Joan Smith. Her talk at Waterstones on 29th May was a part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas and focused on her new book ‘Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men into Terrorists’, in conversation with Finn MacKay. 

A few years ago, Joan noticed that there was a pattern in the background of mass shooters in the States, as many had a history of domestic violence. She also noticed that female family members are often amongst their victims – some US research indicates that around 60% of these attacks involve a female family member – but they are frequently missed out in news coverage. As an example, the Nice Bastille Day attacker had shown no interest in religion until about three months prior to the attack, but did have a previous history of abusing female family members. Joan also observed similar patterns in subsequent incidents, such as the 2017 Finsbury Park and Manchester Arena attacks. Despite these links, Scotland Yard’s database of convicted terrorists does not carry family background data.

In Joan’s book, she looked at 50 of these attackers (nearly all men, one woman) and noticed another pattern too. These attacks seem to occur more frequently if the man has recently been thrown out or if a relationship has broken down. As an example, the Finsbury Park attacker had a history of violence against women, and had been thrown out by his wife approximately six months before he carried out the attack. This is a pattern that has been previously recognised by other feminists, but Joan’s work suggests that the authorities had not. 

By examining these patterns, Joan theorised how someone might become an attacker. She explained that the process doesn’t appear to be as simple as someone finding extreme content online and then becoming a radicalised terrorist. She suggests that there are men who have been exposed to violence to such an extent that they have become desensitised to it. After this, encountering extremist ideology which they agree with can trigger them to act in a violent way. Joan also highlights the striking similarity in the backgrounds of attackers regardless of ideology – both right-wing and Islamic extremists often have long criminal records and a history of abusive relationships with women. In the case of the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis, the attacker had been let out on bail following approximately 40 charges of sexual assault, and for being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.

Joan also expressed her concerns over how readily available the “warrior fantasy” seems to be for young men, which could encourage and glorify violent behaviour. Many terrorists, for example, wear army fatigues or post videos of themselves posing with guns. Joan also noticed that many mass shooters have a failed history of trying to join overly masculine institutions such as the military or police. When they are not successful, it appears they look to achieve this “warrior fantasy” by other means and may view violence as a way out. 

In 2018, there was a three-fold increase in the number of domestic homicides in London. The rise in knife crime that same year (rightly) received a large amount of media attention, but the increase in domestic homicides did not. Women are at greatest risk in the 12 months after leaving a partner, and Joan theorises this could be because her partner has lost control when she finally leaves – “this creates a narcissistic wound, which in these cases results in him trying to kill her or other people if he can’t get her directly”. Joan suggests that part of the problem may be the difficulty that women face when attempting to secure a domestic violence conviction. If domestic violence was taken more seriously, some of these attacks could potentially be prevented. For instance, an individual with a felony conviction cannot (legally) purchase a gun in the States. 

‘Home Grown’ also explores how many perpetrators have also experienced violence themselves, including in their childhood. Whilst it isn’t inevitable that every child that experiences violence will later carry out violence themselves, Joan is concerned by the failure to intervene in many of these cases. The book highlights some research involving brain scans, which found that the brains of children who had been exposed to violence ‘lit up’ in a similar way to the brains of combat veterans, in response to viewing violent images. The concept of ‘hypervigilance’ could explain this, meaning responding in an excessive way to a possible threat. Joan suggests that this could play into the appeal of the extremist ideology, since this material often suggests responding in a violent way to perceptions of threat.

Joan was also asked about the recent case of Shamima Begum, whose case she views as “a huge safeguarding failure” as the police and local authorities had not intervened sufficiently despite being aware that she was being targeted by Isis. Joan believes that she was a young girl misled by propaganda, that didn’t really understand what she was letting herself in for. “We failed her in the first place, she should be allowed to come back and face trial”.

A number of practical policy changes are made by Joan in the book. Listening to victims and taking them more seriously is one of the major recommendations, as is the understanding that one kind of violence is often a precursor to other kinds of violence. Joan also suggests that anti-terror services could take a narrower focus on men that have a domestic violence background, considering the sheer number of people currently on watch lists.

The process of writing this book was difficult, given the horrifying subject matter. When asked how she dealt with this, Joan said she was kept going by feeling the book could have a positive impact, “if you feel you can make a small change, you can deal with this kind of material”. As the talk drew to a close, Finn MacKay thanked Joan for the book and for everything she does for women.

The audio recording of the full talk is available from the Festival of Ideas website:

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