June 16, 2017
By Laura Van Zandt, Executive Director

Past Performance

“There is a stomach-turning predictability to it,” said Monica McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Whenever we hear of events such as these, those of us who work on domestic violence know there will be a history of domestic violence uncovered.”

I am one of those who work on domestic violence – and indeed when I heard about the shooting in Virginia that was the first thing I thought about. How is something so predictable – and therefore potentially preventable – still so probable?

When I was working in financial services, I became familiar with one of the key disclaimers on all the mutual fund marketing materials: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” No – not a guarantee, but we do look at how a mutual fund has performed before making a decision about investing. In fact, asset managers tout their performance over time in every advertisement. We talk about performance over 1, 3, 5 and 10 year time horizons. We make colorful charts and graphs and display returns in large fonts. When we consider an investment, we ask ourselves, how does the fund perform over time? What has happened during different news cycles? What is the volatility? Can we handle the risk?

Past performance helps us understand what we can reasonably expect in the future. We think about past performance when we evaluate and promote staff – have they displayed the qualities we seek and want to retain? We consider past performance when we make decisions about our health – is someone at greater risk for a heart attack because they have a family history or because of other indicators? And especially timely right now, we know that colleges consider past performance when accepting applicants (which is why parents encourage strong academics and other activities during high school as that becomes the past on which the future is built).

Yet when someone demonstrates a pattern of scary, controlling, violent and brazen behavior, we refuse to see that performance as indicative of future results. We don’t consistently provide interventions (incarceration, abuser education, restorative justice or other measures of accountability) that might effect change. And in many states, we refuse to take away the means to do the most damage – guns. Research has shown – both scientific, rigorous analysis as well as a quick scan of headlines – that far too many incidents of mass carnage are preceded by intimate and/or family violence. (Everytown for Gun Safety analyzed mass shootings from 2009 to 2015 and found that 57% involved intimate partner or family violence.) The history is there – in most cases there is even a trail of arrests for such violence, even if the perpetrator is not convicted. Yet for some reason, when we hurt the people closest to us, our justice system (and society) react with less concern and outrage than when we attack and kill strangers.

Abuse is about power and control, and violence is seen as an avenue of asserting that power and control.  Yet despite knowing this reality, systems in society continuously minimize the severity of abuse.  Is there a sense that a victim of a partner or family member deserves what happens to them?  Does loving someone make it okay for them to hurt us?

Perhaps the past performance of James T. Hodgkinson, Omar Mateen, Robert Lewis Dear, Cho Seung-hui, Esteban Santiago and too many others was not a guarantee of future results, but how can we argue against paying attention to past performance if it might actually help us prevent future results?