In the past few weeks, terror attacks by lone-wolf gunmen have taken place across three continents. On June 8, four were killed and six injured at Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, Israel; on June 12, forty-nine were killed and fifty-three injured at Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida in the United States; and on June 16, Labour MP, Jo Cox, was killed in West Yorkshire, UK.
There have been a lot of meaningful pieces written about each of these attacks, including on Muftah. It is crucial, however, to connect these events to one another. They did not occur in isolation. All the gunmen were, for example, motivated in some way by (pseudo)-national identity. All the victims symbolized an ideology or an ideological system the gunmen sought to destroy. All these societies produced a violent nationalism and toxic masculinity that led to these attacks.
Without deconstructing these links, the damaging and dangerous conditions that led to these recent tragedies cannot be properly challenged.
The Murder of Jo Cox
Jo Cox was a progressive British MP who fought valiantly for refugees, human rights, immigration, and the Syrian and Palestinian causes. She also advocated for Britain to remain in the European Union (EU). Her death came just a week before the Brexit referendum, many of whose supporters engaged in a vicious, hateful, and outright racist campaign that shook Britain to its core.
Far from engaging in a nuanced discussion about the political, social, and economics benefits and drawbacks of Britain’s membership in the EU, the Brexit campaign devolved into a plea to nationalism, a battle between different visions of Britain’s post-colonial identity, and petulant finger wagging over whom to blame for Britain’s very real social and economic problems.
This campaign provided a socially acceptable outlet for the fascism and racist nationalism murmuring through right-wing media and once ostracized political parties in the UK. It normalized the stigmatizing of immigrants. As many have pointed out, one Leave campaign poster appeared to be straight out of the 1930s.
These trends were only strengthened after the Brexit result, as a surge in racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant sentiment broke out across the country. Videos and other accounts of white Britons screaming obscenities and demanding that people of color and immigrants leave the country became commonplace.
Embodying the Brexit campaign’s bigotry, Jo Cox’s attacker was ‘inspired’ by a range of right-wing racists, including U.S. neo-Nazis. He was a long-time reader of a variety of far-right literature, published by white nationalists, that advocated for a white homeland and opposed multiculturalism and ‘expansionist Islam.’ For over a decade, he consumed an ideology of white male supremacy, whose realization depended upon violence. This is the capstone of toxic masculinity, in which the white man is supremely dominant in society and maintains his place through violence, control, and the suppression of emotion.
As a loud, female advocate for human rights, immigration, and multiculturalism, Jo Cox was an intolerable threat this belief system. In killing her, her murderer desperately tried to reassert his place at the top of the racial patriarchy, and push back against a world that had chipped away at the power structures that kept him in place.
Similar forces also contributed to the deaths of queer Latinx people in Orlando, Florida.
Absorbed by toxic masculinity, Omar Mateen lashed out against those who threatened his ideological system. Like other men who subscribe to this brand of masculinity, Mateen was full of homophobia and self-loathing; violence and domination were his only outlet.
Toxic masculinity constructs a brand of masculinity that is based on heterosexuality, strength, and power. It forces men to suppress those traits considered to be stereotypically ‘feminine,’ however healthy and human they may be. It rejects weakness, emotion, and vulnerability, and instead glorifies violence and encourages misogyny.
Toxic masculinity left Omar Mateen incapable of understanding homosexuality – either in the world around him or in himself. It gave him, instead, only one option: to reassert the world order as he saw it, by destroying those he viewed as weak.
Toxic masculinity also facilitated Mateen’s actions in more mundane ways. Toxic masculinity-infused nationalism perpetuated the lax gun laws that allowed him to purchase his murder weapon. Guns perpetuate a militaristic masculinity in which strength and domination are paramount, gender roles are deeply restricted, and the world is under men’s control.
The cycle of violence between Israel and Palestine is driven by a need for power over the “Other” and control over land. National ideologies on both sides leave no room for questions or ambiguity. Each portrays itself as the true victim, the morally righteous, and the just inheritor of the land. Both exist in complete opposition to one another.
Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are dictated by militaristic rhetoric, which dominates Israeli political discourse from the center outward, and insists there is no alternative but control and punishment. Violence is fought with more violence. Civilians and the defenseless are the victims. Faceless Palestinians hidden behind a concrete wall are held accountable as a collective, for the transgressions of a few.
In this toxic environment, two gunmen came to believe that resistance to military occupation could be realized through the murder of civilians. They sought out a recreational market, where unarmed civilians were sitting enjoying an evening with their loved ones. These civilians represented what these gunmen sought to destroy – a world that existed safe from the violence of occupation.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine has created a system in which violent masculinity is the norm. Palestinians grow up surrounded by armed Israeli soldiers, constantly subject to the every day violence of occupation. One of the gunmen, Khaled Mahamra, saw IDF soldiers blow up his home when he was in the third grade.
The Power of Appreciating Commonalities
U.S. politicians continue to insist that if only teachers, students, and other civilians are armed with more guns, they would be safer. Israeli politicians continue to insist that if only the Palestinians are trapped a little tighter, and punished a little more, terror attacks will be stopped for good.
When these divisive and exclusionary attitudes are rejected and commonalities between tragedies recognized, the toxic masculinity and violent, dichotomous nationalism that facilitate these acts of violence crumble.
Following the attack in Tel Aviv, messages of sympathy from Palestinians reaching out to Israelis were shared across social media. A few days later, during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which traditionally involves all-night learning, I attended a talk with two Israeli men from the Parents Circle Families Forum, who had ended their own personal cycle of violence by coming together with bereaved Palestinians.
Unity of this sort does not mean disregarding the skewed power relations between Israel and Palestine, or the greater responsibility of those with more power. Instead, it demonstrates that solidarity in suffering can destroy divisive ideologies. In the wake of a very violent few weeks, this is a lesson we cannot afford to forget.