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The Abuser and the Terrorist

The underrecognized web of shame, honor, and twisted masculinity that connects domestic violence and political violence.
December 5, 2020
The Abuser and the Terrorist

I am running on East Eighty-Ninth Street in the dark. Cannot breathe, cannot stop. In the streets kids are playing stickball—I can hear them, but they are a blur of pink and brown, flesh and T-shirts, voices. Keep running. Behind me somewhere is the man who whispers to me in the night, but I cannot look back, can only run. Keep running. Air and night close around me, darkness at my throat, hair in my eyes, boots on the sidewalk, breathe, choke, a man asks, “Are you all right?” but I do not, cannot stop to answer. Keep running. Legs heavy; Eighty-Ninth Street going west is all uphill. Some nights it is whispers and some nights it is curses and tonight it was hisses, hot and filled with spit as a switchblade flashes to the corner of my eye and does not move from there, spit from his mouth spraying against cold steel, distorting the reflection. I am looking forward, only looking forward, do not dare to move my eyes. Until he drops the knife. “Too good for you,” he mutters and turns to walk to where I know the gun is, and this is where I start to run, pull the lock open, the door, down the stairs and through two front doors. Surely he could have caught me by then if he’d wanted to. I am just five feet, and he is six foot one.

Run. Heels hard against the pavement, a hot June night, I still remember, run.

I turn left. Left is the obvious direction: toward home, not away. But I turn left, and he knows I will turn left and so he catches up to me, a hand on my shoulder, the lights stop, breath stops, footsteps stop, and I realize that deafening drumming in my ears has been the sound of my own footsteps because that, too, stops.

“What are you running from?” Boris says. “Come back with me.”

Years later I still remember we are standing on Third Avenue in the dark in front of a deli between Eighty-Eighth and Eighty-Ninth Streets and he is wearing jeans and the pale brown hairs of his chest are visible beneath a denim work shirt that is two too many buttons unbuttoned, and I am seventeen years old and I am stuck. If I go home to my parents I will have to explain why I am back before 9:30 on a Saturday night. I will have to act as if everything is fine when it is not. I turn to face him. There does not seem to be a gun. “Don’t be such a silly,” he says and sweeps me into an embrace, the kind of embrace the good guy sweeps the frightened maiden in when he comes to save her from the evil king, the evil bandits. My head is spinning again but I am too confused and still too dumb with fright to argue.

“Silly,” he says again. “Don’t you know how much I love you?”

It is thirty-five years later, and a glorious spring day. Two young men push their way along the crowded streets, sidestepping the toddlers darting underfoot. Around them people roar and cheer, but it is as if the two don’t hear them; they converse privately and keep walking, the tall, muscular older one and the younger, smaller, handsome one. They are used to being noticed in a crowd—the younger, a star student, immensely popular in school; the older, a professional boxer, accustomed to the stage—but no one notices them now. They carry backpacks and wear caps to shield their faces from the sun. At the corner they part ways then melt into the crowd, half a million people strong.

There is a flash. And then another.

When the smoke clears men and women lie scattered across the Boston Marathon finish line, legs blasted far away from the bodies they only seconds ago had given motion, helped to run, or walk, or stand; arms shorn from shoulders, blood and bone and horror, and a small boy, lying lifeless at his father’s feet.

In 2017 over 26,000 people were killed (and thousands more were injured) in terror attacks around the world, most of them in the Middle East.

That same year over 10 million men, women, and children became the victims of domestic violence in America alone. Over 2,000 of them died.

These two facts are not unrelated. Neither are the stories of domestic abusers and terrorists, and the experiences of their victims. In both cases, the weapon is fear; the laurel, power. Fists, bombs, words, rape, airplanes, sarin—it’s all the same. You know there will be something. You don’t know when. You don’t know quite where. You don’t know if you are safe, or if you ever will be.

This is what the fear is.

This is what terrorism does—in our homes. In our streets. In our lives.

Indeed the complex interrelationships between domestic violence and terrorism form a web that captures much of our current sociopolitical life, from economic patterns and political debates in America and Europe to suicide bombings and massacres in Paris and in Boston and in Charleston, South Carolina; to the atrocities taking place across the Middle East: the stoning of women in Saudi Arabia, sex slavery and beheadings in the Islamic State, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Numerous studies reveal that cultures where women are more oppressed and violence against women is tolerated tend to be more violent in general, and more inclined to engage in warfare. Indeed, as Soraya Chemaly wrote in the Huffington Post, “The greater the polarization of gender in a household, the higher tolerance there is for violence and oppression and the greater the violence experienced by women and girls in those households, the greater the likelihood of militarization and national violence.”

On September 11, 2001, I was visiting my family in New York. I’d grown up there. This was my city.

It was also the city where I’d lived through two violent love affairs—one at age seventeen, the other twenty-one years later. In 2001 I was still recovering, not only from the second affair but from the ghosts of the first that the second had released, that lurked now in the corners of my days. I startled easily. Sudden movements caused me to recoil. Raised male voices made me shiver. Few nights passed without nightmares.

Yet even so, I hadn’t released the more recent lover—call him Rick—completely from my life. He demanded contact. I didn’t dare refuse. More, I didn’t want to face so fully what I already really knew: that this man, who had so long been my partner, my ally, was in truth my enemy; that a wish to trust someone isn’t quite enough to make you safe; that sometimes, even when you do not see the danger, it is there.

And that I couldn’t control any of it because it was not, in fact, my fault.

On September 12, 2001, I watched my friends, my neighbors, my city, become like me. A car door slammed. We trembled. A truck backfired: our muscles ignited, prepared to run. Newspapers asked: Why do they hate us? On television, pundits enumerated America’s many sins. We searched our souls for answers: What had we done to deserve this slaughtering of thousands? What would we need to do to keep it from happening again? What were the rules we had somehow failed to follow?

“Why are you doing this?” I asked Boris once, not long after the evening with the knife. Bruises colored my arms and legs. Fear colored my days and nights.

“Don’t be silly,” he had laughed. “Everybody does it.”

Everybody does it. For the abuser as for the terrorist, this is how life is. Both Rick and Boris were battered in their childhood homes. And “in cultures and countries that produce terrorists,” writes Susan Heitler, “rates of domestic abuse are very high. . . . The belief that dominating others via violence is a legitimate way to act pervades homes, the religious arena, and the behaviors of governments toward both their citizens and toward neighboring countries.”

Everybody does it.

This is why, in the end, domestic abuse, be it physical or emotional, affects not just women but children: sons who grow up to shoot children playing on the island of Utoya, Norway; who plant pressure-cooker bombs in Boston; who behead off-duty soldiers in London and shoot filmmakers in Amsterdam; or who travel to Syria and join the Islamic State, kidnapping Americans and Jordanians and Englishmen and burning them alive, or capturing women by the thousands and selling them as sex slaves to one another. Or they become the fathers of such sons, or they become the fathers of young girls they kill for honor—in Pakistan, in Montreal, in Texas. And it affects not just wives but daughters—daughters who become the mothers of such sons, or the mothers of the mothers of such sons, or daughters who run off to become jihadi brides in Syria—and are often raped or killed there, too.

But it is not simply a matter of repeating learned behavior: Daddy hits, Baby hits. Rather the child who grows up in an abusive home tends to develop a specific personality, marked by a sense of shame, a (pathological) concern for honor, and what psychiatrists call “pathological narcissism,” all bound to one another and to a patriarchal machismo, to visions—romantic, political, literary, and socioeconomic—of men as warrior-heroes, knights on powerful white steeds, brave, all-protecting, and ever victorious. All three of these traits—shame, pathological (malignant) narcissism, and an honor culture—have been linked by psychiatrists, sociologists, and others to violence, and specifically to terrorism. The honor culture that characterizes Muslim societies is—not coincidentally—also often attributed to the American South, where domestic violence rates are the highest in the country and where right-wing terrorist and extremist groups such as the Odinists, the League of the South, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has been linked to white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof, find most of their membership.

Indeed studies have shown these traits in common among the cultures and homes that breed abusive behavior and terrorism, leading to what writer Anne Manne, author of The Life of I, a study of narcissism, calls the “shame-rage spiral of the narcissist who reacts to failure with other-directed, humiliated fury.”

Little surprise, then, that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was charged with assault and battery in 2009 for beating up his then-girlfriend, and was later known to have abused his wife, Katherine Russell; or that he was also known to have hit his sisters; or that Mohammed Atta, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, was mollycoddled by his doting mother while his father, according to a Frontline report, “was a domineering figure and a strict disciplinarian”—a combination that, according to narcissism expert Otto Kernberg, often results in a malignant narcissistic disorder in the child, who is at once slammed with shame while at the same time made to feel, in one way or another, “special.”

Not all child victims of domestic violence become terrorists, of course, nor do they always become abusers. Many become violent criminals. A study of some 2,200 children published in 1998 by the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Research Institute found a strong correlation between recent exposure to domestic violence and violent behavior from the children. A 2015 report summarizing the results of interviews with 44 members of violent white supremacist groups found that 45 percent of them reported having been physically abused as a child (compared to 28 percent in the general population) and 46 percent reported having been neglected as a child (compared to 12 percent in the general population). Some children raised in such circumstances go on to lead normal, healthy lives; but too often a child’s mind is formed by a dangerous culture that resides either within or outside the family—and sometimes both: a culture based on principles of machismo, shame, and honor, and in which malignant narcissism breeds, infecting thought, tradition, and daily life.

And the terror starts. How does this happen?

And when it does, who will go beyond interpersonal violence in the private sphere, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev did, and take vengeance to the streets? Who will emerge so scarred, as Mohammed Atta did, that he will plan and take part in a massacre of thousands? What motivates them, if anything, any differently than the man who beats his son, the wife who beats her daughter, the husband who slams his new bride’s head against the bathroom sink because she wasn’t quick enough to say hello? Who will find a false salvation, a false heroism, in religion and martyrdom? Who will use that religion, too, to murder a wife or daughter? And what can we do, the rest of us, to stop it? More urgently—how in an age of increasing narcissism (a phenomenon only partly explainable by Facebook and Instagram) do we protect our sons, our daughters, and our communities from what counterterrorism experts term “jihadi cool”?

The forces that breed terrorists, we now understand, are not a question of what America and the West have “done wrong,” easily remedied by fixing our own behavior so they will no longer “hate us.” They come, instead, from the societies and families of the terrorists themselves—young men (and often young women) raised not only with specific worldviews but with specific self-views that lead them to become the Joel Steinbergs, the O.J. Simpsons, the Tamerlan Tsarnaevs and Mohammed Attas and Anders Breiviks and Osama bin Ladens of our age.

Yet untying the strands of shame and honor and abuse and violence and terror is not a simple task: the knots are intricate and tight, like the designs on a Turkish carpet, where the background and the pattern often are the same.

Rick comes home as he usually does, shortly after six. I am still at my desk in a nook beside the living room.

“Why are the curtains open?”

“Um . . . because I like the sun?” I am suddenly searching for answers, for the right answer, for him not to be angry. And I can see that he is angry, even if I don’t know why. “The view?”

“Neighbors can see in.”

“Not really,” I say, and hope I sound reassuring. “You really can’t see that far in—look how little we can see in the apartments across the street. You can barely see beyond the windowsill.”

“They can see,” he says. “What do you do, stand in the window all day? Did you close them when you got dressed this morning, or did they see that, too?”

The truth is, I don’t remember.

I tell him that I closed them anyway.

But I am now on guard. The next day I draw the curtains shut before he returns home.

This time, he is glowering before the front door even shuts behind him. “What the fuck?” he says.


“The curtains.”

I look at him, and then at the curtained windows.

“Did you spend the whole day like this?” He is screaming now, his face inches away from mine. “It looks like a drug den, like a crack house in here. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

I am without words. Seeking peace, I go to open them again. He stops me as my hand touches the raw cotton, the creamy cotton curtains we hung together when we first moved in, the first gesture of a home—our first home together. When he pushes me, my back slams against the wall. “Just leave them,” he says. His face is dark and furious. The curtains move, just so slightly, in a passing breeze.

Another obvious nexus of domestic abuse and terrorism: guns. Domestic abusers use guns to kill approximately five hundred women in America every year; that means, as a 2018 Brady Center report put it, that a woman is shot and killed by a former or current partner every sixteen hours. What’s more, mass shootings and terror attacks worldwide have made clear that a domestic abuser with a weapon is more likely than anyone else to commit mass murder.

For that to change, we need to sound the alarm, both domestically and abroad, on family abuse. As Chemaly notes: “It’s violence in homes, and tolerance, societal tolerance, for violence in homes, that is the necessary precursor to all of this public violence.” Even more, we need to look more closely at families, communities, and cultures that oppress women, bearing in mind Valerie Hudson and colleagues’ determination that “the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, or its level of democracy, or whether it is Islamic or not. The very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is its level of violence against women.”

Because of this, we—and by “we” I mean not just governments but civilians everywhere—must actively search out and support initiatives for women’s freedom and education worldwide, knowing that the emancipation of women is the key to freedom for us all: freedom from violence, freedom from warfare, and freedom, at last, from terror.

There are also practical measures Americans in particular have failed to enact, and it is impossible to take on the culture of violence without them. In the United States, for instance, perpetrators of sexual assault—but not domestic violence—are placed on state or federal registries. They face restrictions on where they are allowed to live. They are required to inform neighborhood residents of their sex-offender status. If convicted of felony sexual assault, they permanently forfeit their right to bear arms. They are required to report regularly to local police and report any change of address to the authorities. Some states have required them to provide law enforcement agencies with the names of their internet service providers, all online screen names, and email accounts.

But those convicted of domestic abuse don’t face such consequences. True, people convicted of felony domestic violence or, under a law passed in 1996, of misdemeanor domestic violence forfeit their Second Amendment rights, as do those with restraining orders against them. But as Margaret Talbot noted in the New Yorker after the Pulse nightclub massacre, “The federal law and similar state laws are spottily enforced. These regulations are only effective if states put in place a screening process for potential gun buyers, to see if they have restraining orders against them—and many states have not.” In addition, she adds, “Some states have laws that allow police to seize firearms when responding to domestic-violence incidents, but most do not.” Further, “Municipal nuisance ordinances across the country allow landlords to evict tenants who have frequently called 911—a punishment that falls particularly hard on victims of domestic violence.”

What does happen to a domestic abuser? He might go to jail, and he might forfeit child custody rights, and he might have to pay a fine. But if there are no visible bruises, no weapons in sight, chances are none of this will happen. And as is well known, victims often retract their statements after an arrest, fearing repercussions once the abuser is released. We lie: to protect ourselves, to protect our fantasies, to protect the mirage of a love that we know, but cannot bear to know, does not exist.

But here is what should happen, if any of this is going to change. Domestic abusers must not only lose their right to bear arms but—like sexual abusers—be required to report in regularly to law enforcement agencies, and have their internet activities monitored. Alarms should be raised whenever a domestic abuser turns up in Facebook groups about guns, violence, right-wing hate, Islamist ideology, and misogyny. In such cases, in fact, Facebook, along with other social media companies, should be compelled to intervene. Above all, any laws that punish victims for seeking help must be struck down.

Still, this does not address the larger, cultural issues. Yes, encouraging youth to find self-worth through pride and dignity—and not honor or shame based on their gender, religion, geography, or position—is key to inspiring cultural change, as are endeavors to foster and nurture empathy. But even expertise in art appreciation and theater, for instance, was not enough to keep Charlie Sheen from repeatedly beating his various wives, or celebrity London art dealer Joseph Nahmad from allegedly pounding his ex-girlfriend’s head against the wall of his multimillion-dollar home, or choking her from time to time. Boris had attended the same elite private school I did; in fact we became friends in English Lit.

Which is why even if countries across the globe increase arts education and access to museums and theater and literature, and so, inspire empathy; even if philosophic discourse becomes part of every Western and even Middle Eastern school curriculum, inspiring reason; even if classes in writing and painting and music and dance and drama are offered as replacements to violence as outlets for expression; even if domestic abuse and the oppression of women are demeaned, devalued, and condemned, so much more will still be needed to end the malignant narcissism, the need for attention, the victim chic, the longing for the romantic warrior hero, and so, the shame, the terror, the violence.

It is, for instance, well past time to do away with the “I am special” upbringing of children in the West, and to discourage the coronation of young boys—along with the enslavement of young girls—in the Middle East and North Africa region and other honor cultures worldwide. This includes putting pressure on governments abroad to end child marriage, and criminalizing child marriage here at home, where several states permit marriage at 15 with parental permission. It is equally past time to call an end to victimhood culture, that cousin of pathological narcissism that seeks vengeance and control in the face of insult and that finds such insult in any gesture that fails to demonstrate sufficient piety and honor.

Or put another way: If we hope to end extremism in our communities, we must end the extremism in the ways we raise our children. They are neither little gods nor tiny devils. They need be neither worshipped nor destroyed. Whatever their gender. Wherever they are born. Wherever they are raised.

At the same time, we in the West will have to take a harder look at the realities of how we live. Is this really how we want to live?

Alone with Rick one night, trapped in a heated argument, I called 911. Two police officers, a man and a woman, soon arrived, leading us into separate rooms. You need to think, the policewoman said to me, her voice low yet strong, assuring, if you really want to live like this.

In that moment, standing in my bedroom, the world as I had lived it broke open, shattered into pieces to the floor. And then—I could almost even see it—the shards rebuilt themselves around me, vivid and clear. There was no more refusing to believe. There was no more finding solace in the good times. There was no more blaming humid summer afternoons, the possibility of his headache, the words I must have misspoken, the dress I should not have worn—or should have. The only curtains that mattered were the ones I had drawn over my own eyes, merely to keep on living a romantic fantasy that had suddenly grown dark.

Now, they didn’t merely open. I reached up and pulled them down.

[This article is adapted with permission from Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism (Potomac Books, 233 pp., $29.95).]

Abigail R. Esman

Abigail R. Esman is the author of Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy and the Culture of Terrorism (2020) and Radical State: How Jihad is Winning Over Democracy in the West (2010). A journalist, essayist, and translator, she has written for Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes, Politico, and others. Twitter: @abigailesman.