Why men are killing men over drugs
Male-on-male violence is fed by hopelessness caused by poverty and social deprivation
Gardaí at the scene of a shooting in Coolock, Dublin, last week. Photograph: Tom Honan
Some of us, when we hear of young men killed by gun and knife crime, are not entirely sure that these young men are not masters of their own misfortune. Men are frequently both victims and perpetrators of violence. This makes for a confusing situation. Our feelings about those involved are often ambivalent.
Everyday understanding of men’s violence is that it is personally motivated. This is often assisted by media interpretations. We see reference to problematic relationships between gangs of youths or feuding families. These explanations can help us interpret what may drive terrible violence which has thoughtless disregard for the value of life as its hallmark.
Another way in which we can hope to understand men’s violence against men is to ask men involved in violence. Some years ago, I did just that. With colleagues, I interviewed young men who were convicted of violent crime. Many had killed other young men, others had been convicted of grievous bodily harm. Invariably these interviews started with a perplexed exchange where the interviewees advised that we had the wrong people. They told us that they were not violent. Even this group who had killed and maimed others saw their aggression as defensive, justifiable or even mandated. The situations in which they found themselves required them to act.
Though we rarely see this sort of violence as a gendered problem, our interviews suggested it was. In many ways, these young men’s explanations of their violence reflects the wider societal view that violence can be a means of managing personal relationships, reputations and threats to hard-won status. And while there is a school of thought that attributes male aggression to testosterone or other biological characteristics, there is another that suggests threat, real or symbolic, can be particularly threatening to young men’s sense of who they are.
Let’s look first at the real threat. In Ireland, as elsewhere, men are much more likely than women to be of victims of homicide and assault. Men are more likely to be victims of violent assault than women. In the last weeks three young men have died as a result of fatal gun and knife attacks on our streets and more drug-related killings are anticipated by the Garda. Of the 74 people who were killed in 2018, 57 were men.
Fatalities are, of course, the most extreme representation of this form of violence, but there are many more men upset, injured and disabled as a result of aggression on our streets. There were more than 11,000 serious assaults on men in Ireland last year. Violence against men takes a different form to violence against women. Men visit violence on other men. Men often react because violence represents a real and present danger.
This leads us to the symbolic threats that may also be at play. In our research with young people in Limerick’s most socially disadvantaged areas, young men struggle with education and often perceive their potential as husbands, fathers and breadwinners to be very limited. One way that young men can show their masculinity is through dominance and aggression. This avenue for the expression of masculinity is likely to be attractive where other options are limited.
Hence, male victims and perpetrators of violence are much more likely to appear in the statistics among men living in poorest regions of a country. And in terms of material realities, supplying drugs can provide a livelihood and a very lucrative one for those involved. Expensive cars and designer clothing are some of the high-status trappings associated with those involved. So in disadvantaged communities, where there are limited occupational horizons, this can seem very appealing.
Let’s return now to the mainstream ambivalence about these victims of street violence. In truth much of it stems from the sense men affected by this violence are ‘not like us’ or ‘don’t live with us’. We can be inclined to inadvertently, and sometimes even deliberately, stigmatise those living in poor communities. In our work in Limerick, we demonstrated that this had a negative impact on residents of disadvantaged communities and on the perceived employability of young men from these communities. And so a downward cycle emerges.
In the UK, increasing austerity between 2003 and 2015 has been linked to increased violence and knife crime. This has led social scientists to refer to homicide as an important marker of social change. We appear to be looking at the reappearance of this social marker in Ireland. This is not a time for ambivalence. It is time to provide hope and opportunity for boys and men born poor.
Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at University of Limerick