When It Comes to Orlando Massacre, Domestic Violence is the Red Flag We Aren't Talking About

June 14, 2016


Soraya Chemaly

writer and journalist who’s written about mass shootings and domestic violence. Her latest piece for Rolling Stone is titled "In Orlando, as Usual, Domestic Violence was Ignored Red Flag."

In a new article for Rolling Stone, journalist Soraya Chemaly writes, "The Washington Post reported Monday that 'although family members said [Omar] Mateen had expressed anger about homosexuality, the shooter had no record of previous hate crimes.' But that depends on how you categorize domestic violence." Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, has come forward to describe how Mateen beat her and held her hostage. ThinkProgress reports that between 2009 and 2012, 40 percent of mass shootings started with a shooter targeting his girlfriend, wife or ex-wife. Just this month in California, a UCLA doctoral student gunned down his professor, prompting a lockdown on campus. But first, Mainak Sarkar allegedly killed his estranged wife in Minnesota, climbing through a window to kill her in her home. Last year alone, nearly a third of mass shooting deaths were related in some way to domestic violence. We speak to writer Soraya Chemaly. Her recent article in Rolling Stone is called "In Orlando, as Usual, Domestic Violence was Ignored Red Flag."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an aspect of the Orlando massacre that’s received little coverage: the gunman’s history of domestic violence. In a new article for Rolling Stone, journalist Soraya Chemaly writes, quote, "The Washington Post reported Monday that 'although family members said [Omar] Mateen had expressed anger about homosexuality, the shooter had no record of previous hate crimes.' But that depends on how you categorize domestic violence," she wrote. Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, had come forward to describe how Mateen beat her.

SITORA YUSUFIY: In the beginning, he was a normal being, that cared about family, loved to joke, loved to have fun. But then, a few months after we were married, I saw his instability, and I saw that he was bipolar, and he would get mad out of nowhere. That’s when I started worrying about my safety. And then, after a few months, he started abusing me physically, very often, and not allowing me to speak to my family, keeping me hostage from them. And I tried to see the good in him even then, but my family was very tuned into what I was going through, and decided to visit me and rescue me out of that situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, said her family had to, quote, "pull [her] out of [Mateen’s] arms" when they came to rescue her.

We turn now to this often-overlooked connection between domestic violence and mass shootings. ThinkProgress reports between 2009 and 2012, 40 percent of mass shootings started with a shooter targeting his girlfriend, wife or ex-wife. Just this month in California, a UCLA doctoral student gunned down his professor, prompting a lockdown on campus. But first, Mainak Sarkar allegedly killed his estranged wife in Minnesota, climbing through a window to kill her in her home, and then he drove thousands of miles to California and killed his professor. Last year alone, nearly a third of mass shooting deaths were related in some way to domestic violence. And the majority of mass shootings in this country actually take place inside the home. Just this past weekend, as national attention was fixed to the massacre in Orlando, a man in New Mexico allegedly gunned down his wife and their four daughters.

To talk more about this connection, we’re joined by Soraya Chemaly. Her recent article in Rolling Stone is called "In Orlando, as Usual, Domestic Violence was Ignored Red Flag."

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what you have found.

SORAYA CHEMALY: Good morning, Amy. I think many of us have been writing about this connection for a while. You see repeatedly in these cases of mass violence, particularly where four or more people are killed, that the perpetrator had a history of attacking an intimate partner, a parent. It happened in the Boston massacre. It happened in Sandy Hook. And so, for many of us, you kind of just wait for this information to come to the surface. And we wonder: Why is it that this kind of behavior isn’t seen as an essential element to understanding lethality in public violence?

And so, one of the things that I have been writing about in this regard is: How can we focus on behavior, intimate partner violence and similar behavior, to prevent it, before we get to the stage where it becomes a massacre in public? The statistics that you gave are very, very consistent over time. And indeed, if you look at murders that involve four or more people, the number goes up to 57 percent. And so, there’s no real surprise in the information. The question is: How do we connect these dots more effectively to create better public policy?

AMY GOODMAN: Policemen know how dangerous domestic violence situations are, right? It is the place they will most likely be injured, if they go—if they’re called to a home to deal with domestic violence.

SORAYA CHEMALY: Yes, that’s—I think that’s very true. I think we have a—that’s a very good point you make, because it actually indicates a much larger problem. With domestic violence, we tend to think still that it’s private, very often separated from the way we think about public violence or terrorism. And if we consider, however, the connection between institutionalized and state-sanctioned violence—and in this instance, I’m actually explicitly talking about extremely high levels of domestic violence in our policing communities; some estimates of self-reported domestic violence put that number at about 40 percent of policing communities—you begin to see the overlap between private behavior and public behavior, and then the implications in terms of state action or inaction. For many people who are suffering from domestic violence, going to the police is simply not an option, either for matters of their community and race or gender and sexual identity, but also simply because they feel that they don’t have faith that when they go to the police, that as an institution it will be supportive. And so, until we better address domestic violence in policing communities itself, it’s very difficult to say that the police are an active resource in these situations. They understand the violence, for sure. But the question is: How do they respond to it?

AMY GOODMAN: No record of hate crimes. So talk more about domestic violence as hate.

SORAYA CHEMALY: So, we have a problem, in general, addressing gender-based hate in the country. So, a hate crime has to be coded when it happens. And generally speaking, that isn’t happening in terms of gender-based hate crimes. So, for the past several years, after several incidents where gender and other intersectional factors seemed to be relevant—for example, in the Elliot Rodger case or in the Ariel Castro case in Ohio, I have called the police department and said, "Was there a hate crime filed? Was there any kind of hate crime investigation that was started in either of these instances, and others, as well?" And their response has always been no. And so, we don’t really assess accurately what the levels of gender-based violence in the country are, which is hugely problematic.

And I don’t mean to suggest that all domestic violence crimes are hate crimes. However, there is an element of hatred and misogyny that is pervasive in the culture that we simply don’t see. It’s so normalized. So, every day three women are killed by an intimate partner. Every week we have 12 murder-suicides. Levels of street harassment, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence are extremely high in the country. And so, until we capture the right data, it’s extremely difficult for us to understand these patterns of behavior and then to connect them to these wider forms of violence that are manifested in different ways.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, Soraya—you write, "Homophobia is nothing if not grounded in profound misogyny."

SORAYA CHEMALY: Yes. I think that sometimes that’s difficult for people to appreciate. But if you reverse the trajectory of how we think about the targets of this violence—so, you know, here we had an LGBTQ community that was shattered by hatred. If we think not so much about the targets of the violence, whether it’s women in their homes, people on the streets, people in clubs, and we look instead at the perpetrator, focus on the perpetrator and the attitudes that are informing perpetrator action, then we might have a better way of understanding that connection. If you consider the role that rigid gender stereotypes play, that ideas about masculinity, particularly toxic masculinity, play, that ideas about male entitlement play, then it’s better—it’s clearer to see the ways in which a hatred of women or a hatred of things that are feminine gets tessellated into a sexual shame or homophobia, so that it’s just a different manifestation of the same types of entitlements.

AMY GOODMAN: Soraya, talk about the coverage that we’ve been hearing. We did hear the ex-wife of Omar Mateen—


AMY GOODMAN: —which immediately sparked this for you, is that right? Today, in our headline, we go right to New Mexico to talk about what happened in North Roswell—


AMY GOODMAN: —a man allegedly gunning down his wife and his four daughters.

SORAYA CHEMALY: Yes. So, I think that for people who are attuned to this, this information is everywhere. Headlines don’t often talk about domestic and intimate partner violence clearly. So you may see a headline that says "women and children shot in their home," but very rarely, by comparison, will you see the headline actively identify an intimate partner as an agent of that violence. And that’s a huge problem, because our media tends to erase the agency and perpetration factor. But this is happening every day. It’s happening all over the country. And until we have a way of clearly identifying the patterns in the crimes, we’ll continue to ignore it as a matter of public policy. I mean, last year after the Boston massacres, Pamela Shifman and Salamishah Tillet wrote very clearly about this in The New York Times; again, in The Huffington Post, Melissa Jeltsen identified the same patterns.

And this idea that there is this break between public and private violence is deeply destructive. And it’s also very patriarchal, because it’s based on the idea that there is a special preserve that we aren’t supposed to interfere with. But if you have a person living in your community that is violently abusive towards his family, that is a concern for the broader community. In this case in Orlando, which is often the case, there seems to be no report made to the police, which means that we’re inhibited as a society from taking further action. So, he, for example, was completely able to go and legally get guns. We have a federal law that should have prohibited that, if, for example, he had had a restraining order. But more than 50 states actually do not have laws that support that. And so, until we’re able to provide community services that support people in their own homes, not for the purposes of criminalization, necessarily, because we understand what the biases in our criminal system are, but for the purposes of really understanding the deep complexities of intimate partner violence, we won’t be able to address this violence.

This public violence is a direct outgrowth of tolerance for violence in homes. Boys and girls who grow up in these homes are four times—particularly the boys, four times more likely to be aggressors as adults. And so, when you look at a young man like this one, who went into this club and was clearly exhibiting patterns, very destructive patterns, before, you have to ask yourself: What could have been done to intervene earlier in the process? What was happening that inhibited the family from seeking more institutional help and support that would have been a red flag more broadly?

AMY GOODMAN: Soraya, you write, "The third major issue to address is that of violent men and their access to guns. In households where an abusive spouse has access to a gun, women are five times more likely to be killed."

SORAYA CHEMALY: Yes. I mean, I think that’s information that we have known for many, many years now. And very often on the gun advocacy side, you’ll hear the argument that women should just go get guns, which is kind of just absurd for many different reasons. Women don’t want to shoot the people they love, in the first place, if they’re in that sort of situation. But also, it just turns out that even when women have guns, they’re much more likely to be used against them in the home or against a child, or accidental shootings will happen. That really is not a practical solution to the problems that we face. And if you look at surveys of men and women, there is a huge gap between the feelings of security that men and women have when they own guns, and that gap is really meaningful. Women do not tend to feel safe when there are guns in the home, but men do. So, insisting that women go and buy guns is simply going along a norm that is extremely calibrated to the way men are experiencing violence, not the way women are experiencing violence.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Sitora Yusufiy, who was speaking to reporters on Sunday, Omar Mateen’s ex-wife—


AMY GOODMAN: —who described Mateen’s interest in guns.

SITORA YUSUFIY: He wanted to be a police officer. So he trained with his friends who are police officers, and he had a license to have a gun in Florida. You’re allowed to do that. So, he didn’t practice anything in front of me, but I’m sure he went to shooting ranges.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Omar Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy. Chemaly, can you respond?

SORAYA CHEMALY: So, I think—I think that, very clearly, according to everything that his family and friends and co-workers have said, he had an authoritarian mindset. He had a very rigid approach to understanding certainly gender roles, probably sexuality, and the desire to exhibit sort of very hypermasculine behavior, which is part of being a strong man, having a gun. I mean, it’s really difficult to overstate the degree to which gun ownership is tied to ideas about masculinity in America. We have a long history of that. And so, for a man like this, having a gun, being in a position of authority, enacting state-sanctioned violence are all tied very, very closely to identity. And I think we see that over and over again. I mean, he had a co-worker that asked to be transferred because the man made him so uncomfortable at work. And if you consider that fact and you look at the degree to which, for example, workplace violence is also often grounded in domestic violence, you start to see how intricately related all of these problems are.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to, again, the ex-wife of Omar Mateen speaking to reporters. Sitora Yusufiy said Mateen was violent towards her.

SITORA YUSUFIY: Yeah, he was very short-tempered. And he would often get into fights and arguments with his parents, you know, but because, I guess, I was the only one in his life, most of the violence was towards me at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Soraya Chemaly, your response?

SORAYA CHEMALY: So, her—the rest of her description really supports the argument that he felt she was his property. He wanted her to stay in the home. He clearly felt that he could physically abuse her. He brutally attacked her at one point. As she said, he held her hostage. And as jarring as that may be, it’s not uncommon. We don’t tend to think about domestic violence and intimate partner violence in this country as honor crime, but what we’re really talking about, in terms of the levels of violence we see, are manifestations of deep shame, either shame about compromised masculinity or shame about sexuality that’s unresolved. And so, when, for example, a man like this acts with this violence, or like the man in New Mexico, he slaughters his family—or, frankly, you know, every week, every month, we see similar cases—we tend to disconnect it from either the deeper, broader social patterns that we see or also from this idea that male shame can cause this level of intimate violence in our own communities. And I think it’s very persistent.

AMY GOODMAN: You also quote, right away, Mateen’s co-worker, Daniel Gilroy—


AMY GOODMAN: —who requested a transfer so he wouldn’t have to work with Mateen, describing him as "scary in a concerning way. ... He had anger management issues. Something would set him off, but the things that would set him off were always women, race or religion. [Those were] his button pushers."

SORAYA CHEMALY: Right. I mean, I think—I think, clearly, his co-worker saw this behavior. His wife saw this behavior. His family saw this behavior. But those things were never brought together in a way that could have possibly prevented this violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Doesn’t it also go to the issue of what we call terror?


AMY GOODMAN: Women terrorized in their own homes, women’s health clinics, abortion clinics that are bombed, where doctors are gunned down—


AMY GOODMAN: —where patients are killed—what we call terror and what we don’t.

SORAYA CHEMALY: Absolutely. And actually, again, in the Colorado Springs abortion attack, the perpetrator had also violently abused his wife. And, yes, I mean, I agree. I think that the degree to which women are living with everyday terror is undeniable. But we simply, in our media, do not categorize it that way. I mean, women are making tens of thousands of calls to domestic violence shelters a day. The National Network to End Domestic Violence issues regular reports on these things. And so, on the one hand, we’re—you know, we have this national concern with countering violent extremism, but on the other hand, we’re cutting social services to support the people who are on the front lines of recognizing and experiencing extreme violence. And that’s an incoherent way to approach this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Soraya Chemaly, I want to thank you for being with us, writer and journalist who has written about mass shootings and domestic violence, her latest piece for Rolling Stone headlined "In Orlando, as Usual, Domestic Violence was Ignored Red Flag." We’ll link to it at

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