Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Was McNair's murder an honor killing?

By Donald Sensing

A commenter on Michael Silence's post evoked my thoughts here, which I briefly sketched in a comment there.

I posted yesterday how there are a lot of nagging questions about the murder of Steve McNair and the still-uncharacterized death of his mistress, Saleh Kazemi. Let me review some facts of the case and then hypothesize. I admit in advance that my hypotheses are real "out on a limb" stuff.

Here are some facts as confirmed by Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron, police records and media interviews with Saleh's close family.

Update: Police now confirm that the gun found at the scene under Kazemi's body was the gun she bought Thursday night and was the gun used to kill McNair and her. "Police still aren't classifying the deaths as a murder-suicide, though state medical examiner Bruce Levy said it's a likely scenario based on the evidence."

1. Saleh and Steve had been an item for five or six months. He had taken her on trips as far away as Hawaii. Family members said that on a trip to Disney World he had taken her to a Florida firing range where she presumably fired a pistol. McNair had a carry Tennessee permit and was known to own a pistol, probably several.

2. Saleh told her family that Steve was divorcing his wife and would marry her.

3. Saleh was Iranian by birth, as was of course the rest of her family. She moved to the US 10-11 years ago when her mother died and lived with her aunt's family here. Saleh and family are not Muslim, but Bahai, which is persecuted in Iran. So Saleh had lived approximately half her life in Iran and half here.

4. Between 1-1:30 Thursday morning, July 2, in downtown Nashville, Saleh was driving the Cadillac Escalade that Steve had given her. Steve was a passenger. She was arested for DUI and taken to the booking center since she refused to take a breathalyzer test. Steve left the arrest scene with police permission and later went to the jail where he threw her bail.

5. Thursday evening, Saleh managed to buy a gun illegally (being only 20) from a private seller. Presumably she bought ammunition, too. Thr purchase was made "only hours" after she was bailed out of jail by McNair, said police.

6. She and McNair spent part of Friday evening together. According to witness statements they arrived separately late Friday night at the apartment. They died "early Saturday," according to police.

7. McNair was shot four times, twice in the head, twice in the chest. The head shots were to each temple, one from less than an inch away. The other three shots were from about three feet away.

8. Saleh died from a single shot to her head, so close the muzzle was touching her scalp.

Questions without answers:

A. Did something happen with the arrest that so enraged Saleh with Steve that she went out only hours later and got a gun?

B. Family members say Saleh told them McNair had promised her he would spend the rest of his life with her. Had McNair already started to back down on that (if he ever said it)?

C. Did Saleh blame Steve, somehow, for her DUI arrest? He was a well-known partier, liked his drinks, and she had spent the whole evening with him on the town.

Iranian culture, like most near-Eastern cultures, is strongly honor-shame oriented. Even though Saleh had spent half her life in America and was apparently quite acculterated, she had lived with her Iranian-immigrant relatives. Did the honor-shame dynamic still influence her in her relations with her family?

If so, then an hypothesis (like I said, this is real out on a limb stuff):

Her sense of honor and pride suffered a double blow in just a few hours' time. First was being dumped, however gently, by Steve. Let me point out that we do not know whether Steve ever made the first step to doing so. But if he did it could have caused a shame dynamic to kick in.

The she got the public humiliation of being arrested with Steve playing a role in it, however innocent that role might have been.

In the first case - if it was the case - she had been shamed herself. In the second, she had shamed her family, which is usually more serious in bear-Eastern honor-shame dynamics. And Steve was warp and woof of both.

Could it have been that she saw no recourse but suicide to restore honor to herself and her family? And did she blame Steve for for both shamings somehow, leading her to take his life as part of the path to restoring her honor? Murder-suicide by shamed women was a scandal in Iraq earlier this year (probably better termed "murderous suicide," though).

If so, it may account for the thoroughness of McNair's murder - four shots, one shot with the gun practically touching McNair's head - that I wondered about yesterday. It means that his killing was not an act of passion of the moment, but was done with planned deliberation and great intentionality, especially considering that he was shot once in each temple. The almost-touching shot, if the final one, might have been her way to ensure she had done the deed, or even a coup de grace.

Like I said, this is extremely hypothetical almost to the limit. And like police spokesman Don Aaron said today, we may never know what made this sad event happen.

Psychiatrist blogger "Dr. Sanity" posted a long explanation of near-Eastern honor-shame dynamics four years ago. Worth the read and before you knock down my hypothesis, read it. Key point: in these dynamics, women cannot increase their honor, they can only degenerate it and restore it. The most common penalty for a woman's sexual shames, such as premarital sex or even being raped, is death at the hand of a brother or uncle or even her father. Possibly, almost living together with a man who then dropped her - again, if Steve did drop her - may have kicked that deep-seated shame into her psyche. It didn't kick in when she broke up with her previous boyfriend, Keith Norfleet, because she dropped him.

Update: Dr. Sanity emailed me wondering whether one of Saleh's family members killed both Steve and Saleh. As I explained above, it accords with the common pattern of honor killings in near-Eastern lands for a male member of the shamed female's family to commit the killing. However, police have said from the beginning that they are not looking for living suspects and that all the evidence so far points to murder-suicide, although it has not actually been declared such because not all the lab work has been done. Also, Saleh's family all live out of state. Third, there's no reason for a male family member to kill McNair - within the dynamic at play (if it was in play at all) from a family perspective it was Saleh who shamed them, not McNair. A male relative would almost certainly have confronted Saleh at her own home or taken her elsewhere, not at the condo.

Update: Was Steve planning to divorce Mechelle? As information becomes available, it seems unlikely. While their house was already on the market, their real-estate agent told TMZ.com that the couple wanted to move out of the city to a home by a lake, of which there is ample supply in the Nashville area.

None of McNair's friends or former teammates have indicated there was any issue between Steve and Mechelle. The Tennessean reports this morning,
Bishop Joseph Walker, the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, said he had no indication there was trouble in the McNairs' marriage. When they came to service, they came together. They had not been to see him for counseling.
(OTOH, I can tell you from personal experience that a couple's pastor is usually the last to know their marriage is on the rocks.)

Update: National Geographic's website has a highly informative article about honor killings. Contrary to widespread Westerners' beliefs, they are not done only by Muslims but are a culturally embedded practice. Last year, more than 2,000 people, mostly women, demonstrated in Iran against honor killings after a man killed his daughter because she wanted to divorce her husband.

Update, July 8: Police have announced the killings were murder-suicide by Kazemi. The near-Eastern honor-shame dynamic seems to have little or nothing to do with her motives, which, police say, were that she was being jilted by McNair (well, I got that one right) and was buried in debt.


McNair-Kazemi - nagging questions

Police: Kazemi bought pistol

McNair-Kazemi deaths not yet ruled murder suicide

NFL quarterback Steve McNair shot to death


PD Shaw said...

I don't think this quite fits into the framework of Middle Eastern honor-killing. First, it's the family's honor that is defended by such killings, most likely performed by the father. Second, it's the woman that is the source of dishonor and it is her disappearance that restores honor. In a tribal culture, women are important to create offspring that increase the size of the tribe or for arranged marriages to increase the connections a tribe can call upon.

Third, (and the piece gets this right), it is the publication of the social infraction that creates dishonor. A family learning of extramarital sex, will usually make efforts to arrange a marriage between the couple, or between the woman and the man's brother or cousin. The father may even attempt to keep the matter quiet, but once it's "out there," a reputational injury to the family must be paid in blood.

I recommend Phillip Carl Salzman's Culture and Conflict in the Middle East. He is an anthropologist that spent a lot of time with the Baluchis of Iran, documenting tribal culture and his book demonstrates how infused the Middle East is with tribal values.

Donald Sensing said...

Good points, PD, and I am the first to admit that the killings do not fit the honor-shame template in every respect. For that matter, we don't even know whether the dynamic has even survived a decade of the family living in the US. So I'll emphasize once again that my post is extremely speculative.

But how to explain the unusual precision and apparent careful intentionality of McNair's wounds? It's worth noting that Nashville's medical examiner, one Dr. Levy, said to media late yesterday that the "public should not assume that this was a murder-suicide" (see the Tennessean article I linked to).

Well, we know McNair was murdered, but apart from that all is still dangling.

Anonymous said...

Do we know if she is a US citizen, or would a DUI conviction endanger her immigration status?

Michael Silence said...