When I drove by my corner grocery store last Sunday, the crime tape had already gone up and half a dozen police cars were parked in front. By the time I drove back home an hour later, there was a biohazard truck, along with a half-dozen more police cars and officers diverting traffic from the lot. "What happened?" I said. "An incident," the traffic officer answered, and then refused to tell us what kind of incident. A biohazard vehicle at the corner grocery? Literally a dozen police cars? The TV trucks arrived the next morning.
As it turned out, the nice lady who always smiles at the checkout line allegedly had been stabbed by a man. The reports said she was in critical condition, and gave his height and weight.
By the next day, she was dead, and her estranged husband had been arrested.
In one terrible way, it was a relief. There wasn't a random murder on the corner of my quiet street. Some terrible criminal was not at-large. It wouldn't have mattered if I or, worse, one of my kids had been at the store on Sunday afternoon. It wasn't a holdup gone bad. Shoppers were not the target.
In another way, it was a terrible reminder. When a woman is killed, the first suspect is always the significant other. Women worry about strangers, but it is the wrong men in their lives -- husbands and lovers, especially the estranged kind -- who are by far the most dangerous.
In the old days, we used to complain that the system didn't take domestic violence seriously. Family quarrels, they were called. Arrests were rare, as were restraining orders. Many women didn't even bother to complain, knowing that it was more likely to make things worse than to accomplish anything.
Times have certainly changed. Police are trained to take incidents of domestic violence seriously. Women get all the help they need from courts in securing restraining orders against the men in their lives who threaten them; such requests are hardly ever denied. Indeed, these days, it is common to hear complaints from those men, sometimes legitimately so, that such charges are used as bargaining chips in contentious divorces, even when unsupported by evidence.
The problem is that too often it doesn't matter. All the restraining orders in the world won't prevent a man from surprising his wife at work, approaching her and stabbing her 20 times. The news reports haven't said (at least not yet) whether that nice lady had such an order, but it's hard to see that it would have made much difference. Had she had time, she could have called the police, and he would have been arrested and held. But most of the time, women have no time. Even when they do, the men aren't locked up forever.
Oh, yes, there are the three-day lockups, the required anger-management programs and the like. It's better than it used to be. But not good enough. Too many women are still afraid to use the tools that are available. Too many women still find that those tools are not enough. When you have children, when you are financially dependent, when the bad guy knows where you work at a job that you need, when you can't, for all kinds of reasons, go underground and hide and disappear, a restraining order is just a piece of paper that doesn't save your life.
I don't know the answer. Lock them up longer in the first instance? Sure. Hope the first instance is the last? Absolutely. Improve those anger-management courses? Why not?
But there are no guarantees. I tell young women to beware the tough guys who look so attractive at first, to pay as much attention to who they let into their lives as they do to who they would let into the house if the doorbell rang. If it sounds like blaming the victim, that's not what I mean. Just protect yourself. If any good is to come of the tragedy on my corner, perhaps it will be that someone reading this, or someone who shops at my local store, will remember that bad guys rarely turn good, that violence tends to escalate, and that in most cases, the only answer is to get out at the first sign.
In the meantime, I will miss the smiling lady at the corner grocery.
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