EDITORIAL

If Jovan Belcher had a brain injury, would it matter?

Posted Dec. 26, 2013, at 10:37 a.m.
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Did Jovan Belcher kill Kasandra Perkins and then himself because of a brain injury? It certainly would make it easier on everyone else to have such a tidy explanation. Then it could be the brain injury’s fault; or it could be the NFL’s fault. Such a horrible murder-suicide could then make a little more sense to rational minds. It could even lift some of the responsibility off the shoulders of the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, a former football star at the University of Maine.

But domestic violence homicide, of course, does not come with such a simple explanation. The truth is that perpetrators choose domestic violence. They decide when to manipulate and lash out to get what they want. It’s not about uncontrolled anger. They don’t victimize their boss or their co-worker. They choose to exert dominance most often over women and children within the context of a current or former relationship. And because domestic violence is a choice, people on the outside are often prevented from knowing its extent.

We can’t know exactly what caused Belcher to shoot and kill Perkins, his girlfriend and the mother of their infant daughter, on Dec. 1, 2012. Even if his exhumation and study of his brain shows he suffered from the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy — found in people who suffer from repeated traumatic brain injuries — there will still be questions; if he did have a brain injury, it doesn’t mean it caused him to kill. It is probably not possible to fully understand why he killed the person he was supposed to love.

But it is possible, and vital, to study the general reasons that perpetrators abuse and sometimes kill. The more people know, the greater the likelihood they will be able to spot and prevent physical, emotional, sexual and verbal abuse, which could involve pushing, choking, burning, threatening with an object, unplugging a phone, stalking, restraining, controlling access to money, displaying intense jealousy, preventing doctors’ visits, destroying contraception, checking up on the partner, stealing possessions, manipulating with lies, threatening suicide, making threats to children, humiliating a partner, accusing a partner of unfaithfulness, or murder.

You’ve probably heard that abuse is caused by a desire for power and control. But what does that mean? It means batterers have learned that violence or manipulation works to get something they want. Abuse is a learned intentional behavior, and justification for it usually stems from traditional notions of the “proper” roles of men and women. It is within “socially approved hierarchies of domination,” as some researchers put it, where domestic violence is predominant. For example, societies where men participate more fully in rearing children, therefore breaking down notions equating masculinity to toughness, are less violent. In one group, the Wape in Papua New Guinea, there is a culture of pacifism, few polarizing gender differences and virtually no domestic violence.

Though research into community and societal factors is still new, the few examples available show minimizing violence within entire communities is possible. Belonging to a culture that tolerates intimidation and violence doesn’t excuse an abuser’s behavior. Personal risk factors — like having a history of child abuse or low self-esteem — also do not excuse an abuser’s behavior. But knowing the frameworks that help prop up violence is key to then tearing them down. You heard about Belcher because of his status in the NFL, but domestic violence and domestic violence homicide happen in the U.S. every day. Don’t become blind to the inequality at the root of the crime, and don’t make excuses for the one who pulls the trigger.

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