Family slaughter matters

James Alan Fox

July 14, 2014

Repeated episodes of senseless carnage, unfortunately, have kept mass murder as one of the top news stories of recent years. And when we associate a face with our collective fears, we easily recall the disturbing image of a young man in Isla Vista, California, detailing on video his deadly plan of revenge for his failed attempts to find romance in his life. Or we envision the wild-eyed, orange-haired Colorado man sitting motionless in court after having turned a local movie theater into his personal battle zone.

 Notwithstanding the unspeakable horror and dread sparked by these and several other high-profile massacres in public places, the more typical form of mass murder stems from private turmoil within the family.   According to USA TODAY’s database on incidents since 2006, just over 50% of mass murders involve intimates — spouses, ex-spouses and other relatives.

Tensions within Families

Last week’s mass shooting in a Houston suburb, in which a gunman allegedly killed two adults and four children before being arrested while apparently on his way to kill others, is a the type of tragedy that has befallen families in all corners of the nation.  Most often, it involves an angry and desperate man who seeks to kill his estranged partner and all her children, seeing the kids as an extension of his primary target. He slaughters the innocents as further hurt to his “unfaithful” or “uncaring” ex.

According to authorities, 33-year-old Ronald Lee Haskell, posing as a FedEx deliveryman, barged into the home of his former in-laws Stephen and Katie Stay in Spring, Texas, and demanded to see his ex-wife, Melanie. By the time the gun smoke cleared, Haskell had allegedly shot the Stays and their five children, all but one fatally. The sole survivor, 15-year-old Cassidy, managed to call the police with enough information to identify the suspect.

This mass shooting made news around the country, but hardly with the intensity and impact that one might expect when so many people, including children, are killed. Moreover, the story will undoubtedly be short-lived in terms of the usual news cycle.  The family horror will also be ignored by various organizations, such as the FBI as part of its active shooter initiative and the Mother Jones news group for its continually updated database of mass shootings in America. Family annihilations do not fall into their narrow guidelines for inclusion. The Spring massacre might also be ignored by various interest groups seeking legislative action to reduce the risk of mass murder.

Couldn’t Happen to Me

Of course, the loss of life is no less tragic if it occurs in a private home rather than a public place. Yet, just like the FBI and Mother Jones databases, we tend to dismiss such events rather quickly because we don’t feel personally threatened. They are tragedies that happen only to other people.

Unlike a mass shooting at an elementary school or a shopping mall, which can occur at any time and to anyone, family annihilations can be anticipated, or at least we wish to believe that they can be. In this way, we are able to distance ourselves from the devastation by thinking that such tragedy would never come to our doorstep.

Such “not in my world” thinking also causes us to pay insufficient attention to the precursors and remedies of domestic violence. For anyone looking to identify so-called red flags, there was a wealth of evidence in Haskell’s recent past to indicate a strong proclivity toward violence, including multiple protective orders against him.

Not only was his former wife concerned for the safety of their four children and herself, but Haskell’s own mother had just filed court papers claiming that he had tied her up and choked her to the point that she lost consciousness.

The string of high-profile shooting sprees over the past few years has focused considerable attention to the issues of gun control and access to mental health services. The role of domestic discord in the larger pool of mass killings deserves as much attention, if not more.

We could all do a lot better in reaching out to our neighbors when they are struggling financially or emotionally. All too often, we choose, somewhat conveniently, not to get involved in someone else’s business. However, our sense of community, not to mention public safety itself, would only be enhanced were we willing to make the effort.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is co-author of Extreme Killing and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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