Fri, August 27, 2004

      The private crime


      Perhaps it was the location that made Wednesday's horrific hostage-taking incident all the more chilling.

      Sugston Anthony Brookes was shot by a police marksman right outside Union Station, as hundreds of office workers watched and thousands of commuters arriving for work were trapped inside.

      When an act of extraordinary violence happens in the midst of the commonplace, it shocks us and forces us to take stock of what is happening in our lives and community.

      Just as Wednesday morning seemed like just another workday for downtown workers, so Brookes' life in Ajax, on the surface at least, seemed average. Neighbours were shocked by news that he had assaulted and shot at his wife, Marlene, in the food court of the TD Centre and then taken another young woman hostage before the police sniper took him out.

      Scratch the surface, however, and a different and sickeningly familiar picture of Brookes emerges. He had pleaded guilty to five counts of assault with a knife and spent 30 days in jail. He had been ordered to stay away from Marlene and their two children.

      There were financial woes. He had problems in his workplace. He had beaten his wife on numerous occasions before she left him.

      Once again, we find ourselves plunged into another frenzy of how to cope with that most private crime -- domestic violence.

      The big difference this time is that some fine police work means the victim of the abuse didn't die. This time, for once, it was the perpetrator who paid the price.

      But the issues this case raises are ones that come up again and again.

      First, it points out what a waste of time the federal gun registry is. We punish farmers who need long guns to protect their livestock. Meanwhile, a man with a history of violence against his family has no trouble getting a firearm -- even though his assault sentence banned him from legally possessing one.

      It also points out the huge holes in our mental health system, that a man who has just served time for violent offenses is released with no more than a request that he receive "anger management" training. Is this the best our system can do?

      Marlene Brookes had done all could to protect herself and her family by moving away from her abusive husband. Sadly, though, the very act of a spouse moving out often triggers an "if I can't have her, no one else will," response.

      We've seen this kind of story so many times before. There was the horrific murder-suicide of Randy Iles and estranged girlfriend Arlene May. Iles murdered May, then turned the gun on himself after he was released on three separate bail orders in 1996. Then there was the murder-suicide of Ralph and Gillian Hadley. The Pickering mom was gunned down by her estranged husband as she rushed to hand their one-year-old son to a neighbour for safety.

      The province ordered inquests in both cases. Jury recommendations were a mishmash, suggesting everything from tougher restrictions on firearms to more subsidized housing units and social assistance for victims of domestic violence, as well as a database of abusers and electronic monitoring.

      Frankly, while the housing and social assistance angle may be politically correct, I can't see how it would have made much difference in any of these cases.

      As we saw Wednesday, a man who is determined to hunt down and kill his estranged wife will track her down where she works, restraining order or not. Over the years, we've heard of plans to give cell phones to abused women. Or recommendations that abusers under restraining orders be forced to wear an electronic "bracelet" so they can be monitored. All ideas with merit.

      But the sad truth is, it is still very difficult to protect a woman and her children under these circumstances. This week, that inability to come to grips with domestic violence spilled over onto our streets.