And why do so many people support them?
On January 4, in Enoch, Utah, 42-year-old Michael Haight shot and killed his wife, five children, and mother-in-law, before turning the gun on himself, a form of murder-suicide known as “family annihilation.” Tausha Haight, his wife of twenty years, had filed for divorce a couple weeks prior. Abusers always lose it when you leave.
It’s since been reported, first by the Associated Press, that Haight was investigated in 2020 for potential child abuse after someone outside the family reported it to the police. Utah’s child protective services got involved. At the time, Haight’s eldest daughter Macie said the abuse had begun years earlier, in 2017. She described a time her father grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her into furniture, along with another incident in which he had strangled her. She said she’d been afraid that he would kill her. Michael blamed the then-14-year-old for his violence, saying she was “mouthy.” During the same police investigation, Macie also said that her father regularly belittled her mother, and Michael admitted to surveilling his wife’s communications. No charges were filed.
Nearly three years later, Michael’s obituary in the local paper would read that he “made it a point to spend quality time with each and every one of his children,” and that they were a “cherished miracle.” One commenter spoke of his “Christlike love and service.” Neither the obituary nor the commenters mentioned the murders, and it was only taken down after Shannon Watts, gun reform advocate and founder of Moms Demand, tweeted it out.
Haight’s story isn’t so uncommon. In the United States alone, a man has annihilated his family every 3.5 weeks for the last two decades, a likely miniscule portion of the estimated family annihilations worldwide. Men who strangle their partners are ten times more likely to become men who kill them. And having a gun in the home increases the risk of murder in a domestic violence incident by 500%.
So why do we continue to treat what happened to the Haight family like an isolated tragedy—a “personal” matter—as opposed to exactly what it was: a domestic tyrant who felt entitled, by virtue of being a man, to enforce his will, crush dissent, and destroy his family as soon as they tried to flee?
When a head of state insists on their natural or divine right to monitor your private communications, stalk your movements, imprison you at home, and beat or kill you for wearing certain clothes, meeting friends, or maintaining a separate bank account, we rightly call them authoritarian. We are loud in our disapproval: When Iranian women took to the streets in protest over the arrest and murder of Mahsa Amini by morality police for not properly wearing hijab, the support abroad was strong, the brutality obvious. But when it’s the head of a household terrorizing you, the euphemisms (and excuses) surface: family difficulties over a private matter, better dealt with behind closed doors; it’s best not to get involved, it’s none of our business. All support evaporates, because father still knows best — and if father wants to blow everything up just because he can, who’s going to stop him?
Studies on familicide say in almost every case, the man claims his family as property, with the right to end their lives. Murder, after all, is the ultimate form of control. But the impulse to control or destroy isn’t limited to physical violence: The easiest way to break people is to break what’s precious to them. Look at Elon Musk, who had to lose 200 billion dollars before people finally stopped calling him a genius. Within months of his taking over Twitter, 80% of the company’s workforce had quit or been fired, especially anyone found criticizing him. In a recent New York Magazine piece about Musk’s takeover, they describe how Twitter employees flocked to the company Slack during these mass layoffs, all anxiously waiting for the ax: “One person posted a meme of Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War, the supervillain who exterminates half the living beings in the universe with a snap.”
Advertisers fled Musk’s “extremely hardcore” site as he rolled out a disastrous verification process, threatened people who linked out to other social networks, reinstated Nazis, and ranted about eugenics, all while overseeing a radical uptick in harassment and slurs. With no clear plan to make Twitter profitable, and engineers rolling their eyes at his technical expertise, it’s no wonder Twitter and Tesla’s value has since plummeted. Not that he’s taken any accountability for the losses or the lives he’s upended. He’s been too busy impregnating his employee, lashing out at mouthy critics, and, most recently, firing a Twitter engineer for informing him the reason his engagement was down wasn’t due to a bug—but because people weren’t as interested in him as they used to be.
Whether they’re the head of a family, company, or state, everyone suffers so long as masculinity is wrapped up in an ability to dominate. Impunity and entitlement breed ignorance and nihilism. Patriarchy is ancient, authoritarian, incompatible with equality and democracy, and bad for everyone involved. And it’s as relevant to how Musk acquired and destroyed Twitter as it is to the protests in Iran as it is to what happened to the Haight family.
Human rights also don’t disappear at your doorstep. According to the UN, 47,000 women and girls were killed by their partners or other family in 2020. On average, that means one murder every 11 minutes. But freeing women and children from violence won’t happen so long as it’s still taboo to speak about it. We’d rightfully consider it outrageous if someone called reports of mass rapes and murders in Ukraine by Russian soldiers “airing dirty laundry.” Yet we don’t extend the same support to women abused and murdered by partners or relatives, which happens in every community, and is far more likely than “stranger danger.” (And on the rare occasion victims do get attention, they’re usually blonde, white, and already dead.)
Meanwhile, it’s the same self-destructive, patriarchal entitlement that motivates domestic violence that motivates atrocities like the Russian invasion of Ukraine – if I can’t have you, nobody can – with the same results. Putin first became aggressive in 2014 after Ukraine turned down a trade agreement with Russia in favor of one with the European Union. (Again, it’s most dangerous when you try to leave.) Absent consequences, including for past wars in Syria, Georgia, and Chechnya, Putin has continuously escalated the bloodshed, and will do anything short of giving up power to punish Ukrainians for daring to be free, including letting Russia crumble. In that sense, he’s just like Michael Haight: Insult the sovereign, or threaten his control, and watch him burn the building down with everyone trapped inside. Whatever it takes to teach them a lesson.
Our bodies don’t differentiate between state-sponsored or home-bound torture. What does your killer’s institutional affiliation matter when you’re dead? The lines are blurred in any case, considering the number of men who abuse in private who also abuse the public. It’s not a coincidence that police abuse their families at high rates, or that two-thirds of mass shootings are either an incident of domestic violence or are perpetrated by someone with a record of it. Yet time and time again, on both a personal and policy level, we treat domestic violence as a completely separate matter – anything to avoid the reality that some homes are conflict zones, too.
Even the preeminent global treaty on women’s rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), does not contain the word “violence” once. In 1980, when CEDAW was passed, gender-based violence was considered outside its scope, a private matter that this public treaty wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Men’s rights, especially in war, were already covered as human rights, a courtesy not extended to everyone else. It wasn’t until 1992 that the CEDAW Committee issued General Recommendation 19, which interpreted the treaty to include gender violence. (Full disclosure, I’m on the board of an organization, Every Woman, calling for a new global treaty to close this atrocious gap in international law.) Like the Refugee Treaty, which advocates fought tooth and nail to have courts interpret to include gender persecution as a “particular social group,” half the world’s population suffering the most pervasive human rights violation was considered niche.
When feminism states that the personal is political, it speaks to the ways the private sphere continues to oppress women. There can be no equality in public so long as violence at home is ignored. To be part of the public, you first need to make it outside. Patriarchy cuts across every divide, but its effects are worsened by poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression. When 72-year-old Huu Can Tran shot and killed 11 people at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California during a Lunar New Year celebration, people speculated whether this was yet another anti-Asian hate crime, a misogynist escalation, or possibly both. No motive has been found so far, or connection to any of the victims, but the shooting sparked a discussion online about domestic violence in the Asian American community. The Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence released a statement of mourning, and a plea to make the connection between femicide and mass shootings. They estimate that between 21-55% of API women in the US have experienced intimate physical or sexual violence.
In the United States, women of color are disproportionately affected by gender violence. The CDC reports that Black women are three times more likely than white women to be killed in a domestic dispute. More than half of Indigenous women in the US have experienced sexual or intimate partner violence. On a global scale, 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence.
Authoritarians know that subordinating women helps them stay in power, and systematically encourage and enact patriarchal violence to keep people in line. They claim that masculinity is under threat, and loosen laws that protect women and gender nonconforming people. Reactionary autocrats worldwide are attacking women’s rights as a means of entrenching their control and weakening political participation in democratic mass movements. In Russia, Putin rolled back criminal consequences for domestic violence. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, the European treaty on domestic violence. Poland keeps threatening to do the same, while Hungary never signed it in the first place. (In a move to distance itself from its neighbors, Ukraine finally ratified the Istanbul Convention last year.) Before he was voted out and supporters staged a failed coup on his behalf, Jair Bolsonaro cut 90% of funding for domestic violence prevention in Brazil. The Taliban once again won’t even let women go to school.
Autocrats in the U.S. use the same playbook. Trump assaulting women was part of his appeal, an envied display of power, like his bragging about getting away with hypothetical murder. The party he arguably still leads is no better. America’s homegrown extremists think abortion is murder, but shooting your spouse and kids for wanting a divorce is “Christlike love.” Revoking Roe v. Wade and putting women’s reproductive rights in the hands of state legislators is a human rights disaster with global ripple effects. The loss of access to abortion and reproductive healthcare radically strengthens abusers’ control over women’s bodies, in many cases trapping women for life with children. As if that’s not bad enough, this past week the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a federal law which removed guns from people under restraining orders from their partner or child. Even prior to the ruling, programs to surrender firearms were rarely enforced. In 2021, 127 women were murdered by a male intimate partner with a firearm in Texas, the state where the legal challenge began.
So long as authoritarian violence is acceptable, even encouraged, on the micro level within families, it will be impossible to defeat on a macro level. There is no democracy, no value for human rights, without the participation and inclusion of women and children. And that participation depends on feeling safe at home first. All life, and livelihoods, are devalued when we devalue vulnerable people. And for what? An ancient status quo built on brute strength. Marriage and the nuclear family still provide the basic unit for our tax code. We’re incentivized by the government to create a private jurisdiction where men overarchingly rule. The patriarchs are not okay, and it’s doubtful they ever have been. Their benevolent dictatorship kills, and it’s time to let the toxic institution go.