Trying to Make Sense of It All
The human brain does not process the world without trying to put it into some sort of order. We try to apply causation to the things we observe: plants grow because the sun rises; seasons change because of the Earth’s orbit around the sun; people act and react in more or less predictable ways. We like to believe that good things happen to good people – a deserving public school teacher wins the lottery because it’s destiny, so that she can spend her winnings on the noble cause of education. Conversely, bad things happen to bad people – people who break the law find their just desserts in spending the rest of their lives in prison. We are not comfortable with the idea of a random, uncontrollable world, so we assign causes and effects to the things we see happen to ourselves and other people, creating patterns that soothe our brains and give us some illusion of power over our lives.
This tendency, called the “just-world fallacy,” leads us to some damaging conclusions when applied to crime and victimization,
especially when it comes to statistics affecting women, people of color, and other minorities. In the wake of the Pulse club massacre in Orlando, Florida, one common thread in the responses was “if they had had guns, they could have protected themselves.” Hate crimes against the LQBTQ+ community are often met with admonitions to be less obvious in public, to “pass” better, to hide evidence of an existence that doesn’t fit with the heteronormative narrative of gender and romance that our culture accepts. People who survive sexual assault or rape are asked why they dressed so provocatively, or why they drank so much, or why they flirted so much or played too hard to get. Vast numbers of women are assaulted, battered, and murdered by intimate partners every day, and yet the most common question asked is “why didn’t she just leave?” – as though asking someone to uproot their entire life with no financial stability and no resources is a reasonable thing to do.
As we try to cope with the tragedy of Khalid Jabara’s murder, a common response I have noticed is to question why the family didn’t move away from their violent, bigoted, unstable neighbor. Well-meaning allies wonder why a family would tolerate living next door to a man who had already violently assaulted one of their family members. Why wouldn’t they move? Why would they risk their safety by staying there? Aren’t human lives more important than the financial and emotional cost of giving up their home and relocating to a better, safer neighborhood?
Although this tendency comes from a well-meaning and understandable place, any person who has ever been a member of a marginalized population can tell you that this conversation is neither necessary nor helpful. There isn’t always a “safer” neighborhood to go to. Any woman could tell you that the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone close to the victim, and are often perpetrated because the victim is not in a position to be able to defend herself, whether because of power dynamics, intoxication, or fear of further retribution. Abusers are empowered to continue their abuse because they isolate their targets, wearing down their self-esteem, limiting their financial resources and holding other loved ones hostage, making it impossible to leave. And nobody should be asked to hide the fundamental aspects of who they are, whether it is their gender identity, their loved ones, or their religion, simply to avoid being the target of violence.
It might be true that if the Jabaras had moved away, their assailant could have stopped targeting them. It might be true that if every woman in the world stopped wearing miniskirts, or hijabs, or yoga pants, or running shorts, sexual assaults would stop. It might even be true that bad things do happen to bad people who deserve them. But we have to stop making that our knee-jerk response.
Victim blaming does not answer the question, “why would this man murder his neighbor?” It does not begin to heal the wounds that Khalid’s loss will leave behind. It certainly does not help us prevent future violence that will destroy more families, more lives, and more communities.
It is time to stop asking “why didn’t they” prevent their own victimization and time to start asking, “why did he pull the trigger?”