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The Secret Weapon of the Powerless
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Covert violence occurs in all social institutions—including families and close relationships, education, workplaces, politics, mass media, and healthcare—each with its own unique power dynamics that shape the incidence and patterns of these vicious acts. This book focuses on the types of surreptitious murder and mayhem that perpetrators intend to go unnoticed by would-be victims—until it’s too late. When such attacks are carried out with efficiency and competence, they may be disguised in official records as the result of illness, accident, or intentional self-harm, only on occasion to be later reclassified as the brutal crimes they are. This compelling and much-needed book is for all those who seek to understand—and strive to prevent—violence in society.

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This chapter expands on important findings from the exploratory study of reclassified U.S. deaths, including: (1) that the perpetrators and victims in cases of covertly committed murder are disproportionately more likely to have shared a familial or other close relationship, compared to those involved in overtly committed incidents; and (2) that women appear to commit covert acts of violence at far higher rates than is reported in official data on violent crime. While the former finding is closely linked to the social institution of the family—particularly because of the close access that is often required for a perpetrator to commit covert violence (for example, a would-be poisoner would have more opportunities if targeting a member of their own household or with whom they maintain a trusting relationship, compared to targeting a more suspicious stranger)—the latter finding illustrates the connection between covert violence and powerlessness. Multiple examples of covert violence that have occurred within families and close relationships are included to illustrate these connections.

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This chapter takes a close look at patterns of covert violence within U.S. schools. There is an unusually large number of middle-aged U.S. teachers (with no previously known serious medical problems) who have suffered sudden health emergencies—including death—in their classrooms, as well as numerous cases of students who have inserted a harmful substance (for example, cleaning fluids, eyedrops, or nail polish) into their teacher’s unattended water bottle or coffee cup. These patterns became apparent only in recent decades, after a profound shift in school discipline in the United States that simultaneously seems to have empowered disgruntled students to feel entitled to enact revenge against any teacher who made them angry. Yet, retaliation via overt methods is generally futile, as students have a severe power deficit compared to teachers. In addition to multiple examples of student-perpetrators, this chapter includes examples of other powerless school employees who covertly targeted supervisors (for example, a custodian in one case and a bus driver in another) and explains why the incidence of covert violence is far lower in higher-education settings.

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This chapter suggests that hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical facilities are potential hotbeds for covert violence, if for no other reason than the fact that many people die there every year. After all, patients typically check into a hospital because of serious illness or injury, and nursing homes are intended for those in need of round-the-clock care. Although most of the sick and injured who seek care (in the United States and other economically advanced nations) are treated and then released on the road to recovery, many others die on the operating table or in their hospital bed. Because death is very much part of life in healthcare facilities, it unfortunately also makes them places where a killer can operate unnoticed for long periods of time without being discovered. However, healthcare workers who covertly target patients are rarely physicians; they are more often members of staff with far less power, including orderlies, nurse’s aides, and home-healthcare workers.

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This chapter establishes the concept of covert violence and presents a variety of data that collectively suggest a much greater prevalence of this type of violence than has ever been formally recognized by law enforcement agencies, government entities, or crime scholars. It first reviews data on U.S. deaths classified by manner—accident, natural cause, suicide, or homicide—before presenting an original exploratory study of U.S. deaths that had initially been classified as accidental, natural, or self-inflicted, but subsequently (typically months to years later) were officially reclassified as homicide. The chapter then lays the foundations for the theoretical perspective developed throughout the manuscript that links covert violence to issues of social power and to unique features of different social institutions.

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This chapter includes several cases of secretive celebrity stalkers but otherwise mostly takes an unconventional approach to the idea of violence via media. In particular, the rise of digital technologies has allowed for new methods of covert attack—including doxxing, deepfakes, and other forms of terrifying harassment—as the so-called “dark web” provides a shroud of anonymity for powerless individuals who have developed new and collective ways to threaten, harass, and assault the objects of their obsession. Even without an anonymous online community, some covert attackers experience enough personal satisfaction for the act alone to be worthwhile. Examples date back decades, including multiple radio and television hijackings in the 1980s and 1990s for oftentimes bizarre/nonsensical reasons (for example, the “Max Headroom incidents” of 1987), and continue to evolve alongside advances in media technology.

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This chapter examines a wide range of violent acts that have been surreptitiously perpetrated throughout history and around the world. Covert violence has always played an important role in supplementing conventional warfare, and clandestine attacks by weaker operatives have had devastating consequences—even in a country like the United States that is widely known for its military might (for example, the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces and the September 11, 2001 attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda terrorists). Moreover, clandestine biological warfare has a centuries-long history around the world; from 1155 to 1863, documented attacks between political rivals included: contaminating water wells with dead bodies, selling wine mixed with the blood of leprosy patients, launching projectiles coated with the saliva of rabid dogs, and distributing blankets and clothing contaminated with smallpox and yellow fever. Plenty of examples can also be found throughout the 20th century—particularly during the two World Wars—as well as in the 21st century. Although any combatant might conceivably decide to employ clandestine weapons and/or to strike surreptitiously, one with a large power deficit that is nonetheless desperate to win might be especially likely to resort to covert acts of violence.

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This chapter focuses on strategies for preventing covert violence, something that is perhaps even more difficult than preventing overt forms of criminal behavior. To a large degree, this is because the covert version is often harder to detect and/or is easily misunderstood as something else. Compared to maliciously inflicted injuries and deaths, those that are deemed accidental, due to natural causes, or self-inflicted generally require much less, if any, investigation or follow-up. And once an official classification has been made, there are virtually no mechanisms in place for routine reconsideration. Further, the U.S. legal standard required for a criminal conviction—beyond a reasonable doubt—is a high bar to achieve. If there is not enough evidence present, perhaps it is easier or more practical to classify a possible homicide as something else. Despite these and other difficulties, strategies exist that hold promise for reducing the incidence of covert violence. This chapter describes three of those, along with supporting evidence and examples.

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This chapter examines the many layers, motivations, and outcomes that represent covert violence in the U.S. workplace. Although these acts seem to occur less frequently in this social institution compared to others, the connections to powerlessness are even clearer. This is largely because power itself tends to be distributed more explicitly in the workplace, particularly via overt hierarchies that delineate salaries, prestige, and autonomy in ways that have important implications for workers’ lives. Disgruntled employees usually lack enough clout to retaliate directly against an offensive co-worker or boss without seriously harming themselves, yet covert violence offers opportunities for the revenge they seek with far less risk of being harmed or hassled—or even detected at all. Indeed, some acts of covert crime in the workplace are so well planned and executed that it is never absolutely clear that they were intentionally committed at all. Included are examples of workers who have targeted bosses, rival co-workers, customers, and even the company itself.

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This chapter is a fictional short story about capitalism and a Lebanese immigrant man living in Denmark with his Danish wife and their daughter. He works as an area manager in a multinational clothing company and as he attends the company’s annual general meeting, some of his co-workers make him an accomplice in their gross sexual harassment of a female employee. In Lebanon, the narrator was involved in feminist activism so all of his identity markers (race, gender, sexual orientation, professional status) get activated in a confusing puzzle as he finds that Denmark is not the paradise of gender equality that he hoped for.

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