Sex of the victim doesn't make this crime any worse
Is it worse to shoot a woman than a man? I'm asking the question after a 47-year-old woman was shot by masked gunmen outside a flat in Rathcoole. The two men forced their way in, smashed the place up, then as their victim tried to escape, they grabbed her and blasted her in both legs.
"Everybody would be shocked that a woman has been shot," said local DUP councillor Paul Hamill. Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Hamilton said that it was barbaric for "a woman, a mother" to be shot.
It is horrifying, of course, especially when you hear reports that the woman in question is of very small stature, and is believed to be recovering from a recent hip operation. There is something utterly grotesque about the image of these ruthless, cowardly thugs administering their perverted form of 'justice' to a frail, terrified woman lying on the ground, completely at their mercy.
But how would the situation be any better if it was a man, perhaps a father, lying there? After all, every unarmed person is weak and defenceless when confronted by another person with a gun.
Let's be honest, we wouldn't be discussing this attack if the victim was male. As a society, we're fairly indifferent to working-class men having their knee joints exploded as a way of punishing them and keeping them in line. It's a common, almost everyday occurrence: as this newspaper revealed last year, two paramilitary-style shootings or beatings are happening every week on the streets of Northern Ireland, and they're on the rise.
We have even ceased to marvel at the extraordinary phenomenon of parents bringing their teenage sons to be shot, by appointment, because the threatened consequences of failing to keep that grisly date are too awful to contemplate. We sigh, shake our heads and move on, accepting it as just one of those things - if we even notice it at all.
Violence, and the threat of violence, continues to drive and warp this society, and the fact that it's so thoroughly normalised shows how far we still have to go before we can accurately think of ourselves as civilised, humane people.
A woman being kneecapped is different, though. That is unusual enough to make us sit up and take notice.
The idea that women have a special status as privileged creatures, uniquely innocent and undeserving of harm, has a long history, and it continues to pop up in the most surprising places. In January, the ponderously right-on Guardian carried the headline: "At least 36 people die, including 25 women, in Shanghai waterfront new year crush". As a perplexed reader pointed out, they wouldn't report that at least 36 people, including 11 men, had died, so why do the reverse?
In a similar way, we struggle to come to terms with the idea of the guilty female, capable of heinous crimes: it defies the popular myth of women as intrinsically wholesome, maternal and loving. Whether it's double-murderer Hazel Stewart or Karen Walsh, the so-called "crucifix killer" who beat a pensioner to death, we can't quite believe a woman would do these terrible things, whereas we'd easily believe it of a man.
What's even worse is when women and children are lumped together as an especially vulnerable category of person. "Women and children first" may have been the cry as the Titanic went down, but there's no modern justification for treating fully-grown and perfectly sentient females as equivalent to juveniles. When Barack Obama was making the case for US military action is Syria, he invoked the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons on "innocent civilians and women and children". It was perfectly reasonable to cite the appalling barbarity of gassing children, but why did Obama feel the need to single out women too? Is an innocent woman any less deserving of being gassed to death than an innocent man?
We do not do women any favours by extending them such dubious chivalry. They are not delicate, child-like flowers, requiring special tending and consideration.
So if those two masked brutes had walked into the Rathcoole flat last Sunday and crippled a man instead, it would have been just as vicious and indefensible a crime. The true horror is not in the fact that a woman got shot, it's in the fact that a person got shot. It's an insult not to the female sex, but to our common humanity.