The current staff includes a few holdovers from my years, including two among the five killed in a shooting Thursday at the newspaper. We veterans of those days are known as the Rolling Donut Society, based on an apocryphal insult created by foul-tempered former owner Philip Merrill, which involved doing something unprintable atop a rolling breakfast treat. I see on social media that the people who work there remain as committed as we were back then, and that they are doing more with less. I am in awe of the presence of mind they had to cover their own tragedy in real time and the devotion and strength required to put out a paper the day after their co-workers were killed and injured, even as much of the rest of the country was already lobbing accusations and recriminations or sending empty thoughts and prayers.
But amid all the charges and countercharges, one comment stood out to me. Someone with the handle @Antithesis_Red tweeted, “Women are the canary in the coal mine almost every time.” And this is a point that shouldn’t get lost.
Yes, President Trump’s “enemy of the people” propaganda could have had an impact on someone who already had a grudge against the news media, tipping him into violence. But you know which attitude expressed by our president more directly dovetails with the alleged shooter’s beliefs? The idea that you can grab women “by the p—y.” Because this tragedy, like so many, started when a woman did not return affections a man felt entitled to.
The man charged in Thursday’s shooting, whom I’m not naming because I don’t want to give him the notoriety he or others like him might seek, reached out to a former classmate on Facebook years ago. When, after some disturbing exchanges, she tried to cease communication, he began harassing her. She filed charges, and in 2011, he pleaded guilty to harassment. A columnist for the Capital wrote about the woman’s ordeal. The man sued the paper for defamation in 2012. The judge ruled against him, finding that he hadn’t proved that anything published about him was false. The ruling was affirmed in 2015.
“The appellant was charged with a criminal act,” wrote Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. “The appellant perpetrated a criminal act. The appellant plead guilty to having perpetrated a criminal act. The appellant was punished for his criminal act. He is not entitled to equal sympathy with his victim and may not blithely dismiss her as a ‘bipolar drunkard.’ He does not appear to have learned his lesson.”
He had not. Three years later, authorities say, he would shoot his way through the glass doors at the Capital Gazette.
This male sense of entitlement to a woman’s body and affection is ingrained in our society. Young women are taught that they must expect attention from men who want something from them that they don’t want to give. They’re encouraged to put up with it, be polite, make nice, try not to hurt their feelings. No one considers how absolutely outrageous it is. Would anyone tell a man that he should let down easy some acquaintance who felt entitled to his devotion or body (or his car or money)? Of course not.
Sometimes, the mind-set that allows a man to believe he can compel affection from a woman who doesn’t want to give it doesn’t stop there. It can lead directly to that same man thinking a newspaper should publish his version of the interactions between him and that woman, or that a judge should rule that a newspaper that fails to publish his version has defamed him. After all, he’s right, she’s wrong, and anyone who doesn’t see it that way is wrong, too. And when people don’t see it his way, this mind-set can lead a man to think that those people deserve punishment, too.
There’s a reason that mass shooters are almost always men. There’s a reason so many mass shootings — 54 percent between January 2009 and December 2016, according to Everytown for Gun Safety — are related to domestic or family violence. The gunman who killed Texas churchgoers was court-martialed for assaulting his wife and child; the one who murdered revelers at the Pulse nightclub had beaten his ex-wife; the gunman who shot down Las Vegas concertgoers verbally abused his girlfriend; the Texas teen accused of killing 10 at his school targeted a girl who reportedly had rejected his advances. There aren’t many steps from thinking that a woman owes you something to concluding that the world owes you something, as well. And that when the world doesn’t deliver, you are justified in your anger, justified in lashing out, justified even in killing people over it.
On Thursday, it was my fellow journalists. Next time, it will be other bystanders, who have also done nothing wrong but live in a country where a guy with a grudge against the media and a staggering sense of entitlement can find validation for both from the president — and, of course, easy access to a gun. John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Rob Hiaasen and all the other victims of mass shootings deserved a better country.
The fight isn’t just about guns or the news media. The fight is also about the idea that any woman owes any man anything.