On Her Own

When it’s personal, and when it’s not

Last week, I attended John Hearne’s webinar, “How Paranoid Are You?” He covered, among other things, topics relating to how much violent crime really is happening in the United States, how much we as individuals might be at risk of being victimized by violent crime, and what we can do about that potential. It was an excellent collection of information, with lots of pointers to deeper sources, and you should definitely sign up if he runs it again. Hit up jhearne.com for a link to his Eventbrite page, where future learning opportunities will be posted. In the meantime, I want to dig into a topic that John raised that I think can help women especially understand the kinds of violence we might be targeted for. This is a mix of John’s material, things I’ve learned from others, and my own thoughts, so blame any weirdness on me please!

It’s the idea of instrumental versus expressive violence, the question of whether the violence is a means to an end or an end unto itself. The distinction is important because the people you are at risk from for each are different, and the kinds of defenses that work against each are different.

Instrumental violence is about someone wanting to get something from or through you. There’s something they want, and you’re an obstacle between them and that thing. In its simplest form, instrumental violence is what happens when a purse-snatching goes wrong. The robber wants the purse and the money or other valuables that are presumably inside, and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process of taking that purse. That there is a human being in the way between the robber and the purse is immaterial. It’s literally not about you because you’re simply the universe’s means of transporting the purse into the robber’s orbit. The robber isn’t targeting you individually and personally, just the generic idea of what they think must be inside your purse. Even in a mugging or burglary that ends in the victim dead, the motivations can be similar: the victim was interfering with the stuff the bad guy had come to get.

Those are the sorts of crimes that tend to seem random, and often involve complete strangers – someone you don’t know or even recognize, and they probably have no idea who you are either, because it simply doesn’t matter to them. Avoiding them is generally a matter of not looking like you are worth the effort of the payday that the bad guy wants. This has a lot to do with whether you appear to have a possession that they want and whether you appear capable of making trouble for them either during or after the attack. Bad guys aren’t dumb. They want to make sure they can get what they came for, and that they won’t get in trouble or get hurt while they’re doing their job of taking something from you.

It gets a little more complicated when the goal isn’t acquiring some material item. Instrumental crime can also include a bad guy wanting to get a feeling of excitement or power because they’ve hurt somebody. It can be important to them the type of person they’ve hurt, and then it starts to get a little more personal. They don’t want the purse no matter who is toting it around. They want the thrill of grabbing that purse in a certain neighborhood, or from a certain type of person. They want to rape a girl who looks a certain way. Maybe they want to “get back” at someone they actually know, because they want to get revenge for a real or imagined slight. There’s still something these bad guys want, and they’re not afraid to use violence to get it, but it’s not something you can hold in your hand.

While the strategies to not look like an easy victim can help you avoid being targeted at all for these types of attacks, they won’t be as successful when you have become the specific person that the bad guy wants to use to pursue their goal. In those cases, it’s not so much about turning a potential attacker away from you as a general type as opposed to getting them to decide that you, individually, are not a good idea to mess with. That might require changing their mind after you’re already facing them. Sometimes you can talk your way out of the situation if they’re simply “interviewing” you to see if you’re someone who might be a good candidate victim. Sometimes, it requires being a little more violent yourself, so that they decide you’re just far too much work and they’re not going to get what they want without more effort than they want to expend.

Expressive violence though, that’s when it’s all about the violence. It’s about hurting someone to make a point about how they can hurt you specifically or a person generally. The crime itself is the goal, not the thing the bad guy gets out of performing the crime. It’s often mixed in with those immaterial payoffs that can come with instrumental violence, and one can follow the other or get mixed up with the other, but the ultimate end game is to make a point by being violent. Terrorism is often expressive violence. Stalking can be. So can rape. Expressive violence can be to send a message to those around you or simply because someone wants to hurt somebody. That’s not always the case, of course because sometimes, even often, it’s because they know you or they think they know you, and they want you to suffer. These tend to be the really scary ones because you, individually, may be the target and when that happens, there’s very little you can do to dissuade them in general or peaceful ways, especially because their internal logic for deciding that you must be their victim may not be any kind of logic that makes sense to ordinary people. It’s not necessarily “they’re crazy” so much as “they don’t think like us.” Expressive and expressive-instrumental violence is about you, and that usually means that the only way to stop it is physically, either by never being physically available to the attacker or by using overwhelming violence so that they are no longer able or willing to hurt you. Depending on how motivated they are, you might have to kill them before they’ll give up.

And that makes it really tough, because being the target of expressive violence means that it’s not unlikely that the person who is trying to harm you is someone you know and like, even love, and that they’re going to be difficult to logic into not going through with their plans, so you may need to use violence back against them in order to protect yourself. There’s nothing easy about any of that, which is why it’s so important to understand that it happens and you might need to. Just like realizing that random crime occurs and that you could be the victim of a simple mugging can be enough for you to take steps to not be that victim, realizing that targeted crime occurs and that you could be targeted is the first step toward learning how to protect yourself from that too.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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