Monday, February 07, 2005

Are 'Honor Killlings' Terrorism?

Are so-called 'honor killings' terrorism? Dutch MP Hirsi Ali thinks so and wants the Dutch intelligence services to treat them as such. She would like to prosecute not just the actual killer but "also the family members involved in the planning."

That seems like a no-brainer whether they are terrorism or not. However I don't think honor killings are "ordinary crimes" as Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner said on Friday.

The larger cultural context is what distinguishes honor killings from simple murders. People kill their daughters and wives for lots of reasons, in Holland and in America. But the culture and the community recognize these murders as murders, as mortal crimes, and the killers are treated as outcasts and criminals. Indeed often the neighbors or relatives rat out the killers to the police. Even when measured against their own cultural and community standards these murders are murders.

Honor killings are different. They are not merely punishment for a woman who has "disgraced" the family. In their cultural context they are a warning to other women: do not transgress the norms of the community or you will be killed just like she was. The murderers in an honor killing are trying to reclaim their "honor", not the woman's (she has foresaken hers), by killing the daughter or wife who has brought "dishonor" on the family.

It's not simple revenge. Honor is a communal concept and value. Revenge can be, and usually is, merely personal, sometimes intensely so. Honor requires a group to recognize it as such, whereas revenge does not. Indeed in fiction revenge is often carried out in complete secrecy so that no one but the killer recognizes it as revenge.

When the Mob wacks a witness who was going to testify against them, we know that it isn't just a murder but a warning to others: testify and die. Honor killings are the same. Break the rules (no matter how archaic or opressive) and die. The difference being that there are very few Mob witnesses whereas there are many, many women, even in the West, born into cultures obsessed with female "purity" as a measurement of family "honor."

So yes, honor killings are a kind of terrorism; sort of niche terror, highly focused on a cetain demographic. Yet even those who are outside the honor community are indirect targets of the terror since the killing sends a secondary messsage to the outside group: our women are ours; our norms trump your laws; we are not a part of the larger social/legal order. This challenge must be crushed.

Hirsi Ali, who knows a thing or two about oppressive cultures, is right. Honor killings should be treated as something far more ominous than ordinary crimes because they are a sign of something larger than just a single criminal or crime. If family members were involved before or after the killing, they should be be prosecuted and, if guilty, sent to prison. Same for other relatives and neighbors. The authorities should cast as wide a net as possible, just like they do with terrorism or organized crime. Because that's what honor killings are.
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