A recent story out of Elwood, Indiana once again underscores the pervasiveness of victim blaming in our culture. In Elwood, a 14-year-old girl faces relentless bullying and harassment, all because she was raped and impregnated by a 17 year old boy. “I can’t walk out the door without someone calling me a whore or slut,” she said. Locals have vandalized her family’s home, writing misogynistic slurs on their garage doors.
This story is a horrifying reminder of how often people in our society blame and re-victimize survivors of violence and abuse. But often victim blaming isn’t just perpetuated by individuals, but institutionalized, as in the US military. Lisa Wilken, who was raped in the US Air Force, told USA Today, “The damage that has been done to me hasn’t been by the act of the assault, it has been the treatment that I have received through the process.” Likewise, there have been many cases of prisoners being threatened and attacked by guards for reporting rapes.
And while victim blaming in sexual violence cases is particularly traumatizing, victim blaming is often applied to other forms of violence as well. For example, it permeates the justifications given for US bombings that kill civilians. The Obama administration claims that all military age males killed are “militants” until proven otherwise. Even 16-year old American citizen Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was initially branded a militant after a US drone strike killed him in Yemen, although as Glenn Greenwald points out “nobody claims the teenager was anything but completely innocent.”
After Abdulrahman was identified, a different style of victim blaming was used. When asked about the executive branch killing an innocent American 16-year old, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.” Gibbs was referencing Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulrahman’s father, an American citizen and radical Muslim cleric who was also assassinated by the US government with no charges or trial. Anwar al-Awlaki was already known to be dead by the time Abdulrahman was killed, so it is not just cruel to blame him for his son’s death, but chronologically absurd.
Victim blaming is similarly used to justify state violence at home — for example, in cases of police militarization.
Late at night on January 4th, 2012, armed men broke into Matthew Stewart’s home with guns blazing. Matthew, a startled gun owner and military veteran, fired back on the home invaders, killing one and wounding several others. Stewart was also severely wounded and hospitalized.
In an ordinary home invasion, the victim would not be blamed for defending himself. But in this case the aggressors were police officers, so Matthew Stewart was jailed and the state began a victim blaming smear campaign against him. The accusations flew fast. Weber County Attorney Dee Smith was not content to just smear Matthew Stewart as a “cop killer,” seek the death penalty against him, and claim that the cops were justified in their aggression because Matthew was peacefully growing marijuana plants. No, he also found it necessary to spread baseless lies that Matthew Stewart was a pedophile and a terrorist. All this because Matthew defended his home from violent aggressors.
After a year and a half of abuse in jail, Matthew Stewart committed suicide. And the victim blaming and degradation still didn’t end. Police officers trespassed in his home again even after he was dead and the state’s case against him was closed. Officer Jason Vanderwarf harassed Matthew’s grieving family members on Facebook, writing “now you all can feel our pain.” Vanderwarf was one of the initial aggressors, having lied on the initial search warrant and participated in the home invasion.
Here are two simple principles for decent human beings: 1) Initiating violence is wrong; 2) Don’t blame the victims of aggression and violence.
We need to stand up for these principles. And we need to hold those who violate them accountable, whether they are rapists, misogynists, military commanders, presidents, prosecutors, or police.