When a bullet ripped through Nevada Judge Chuck Weller on June 12th, the public debate surrounding the family court system shifted.
Reno businessman Darren Mack is suspected of shooting the judge whom he blames for the 'unjust' conditions of his divorce. He is also charged with slashing his estranged wife Charla to death.
Through years of effort, father's rights activists had pried open the lid of debate on whether family courts are biased against men. Mack may well have slammed it shut again.
If he is guilty of either crime, then Mack is the walking stereotype of an abusive man from whom society and children need to be protected.
The public debate is already reacting to the stereotype. On June 16, the U.S. Senate approved the long-delayed Court Security Improvement Act of 2005 which expands security for judges, prosecutors, witnesses and their families. The bill was championed by Nevada representative Harry Reid in specific response to the Weller shooting. Meanwhile, media headlines such as "Police Find Bomb Materials and Ammo in Mack's House" stir further concern about estranged husbands and dads.
Mack no more represents alienated fathers than Andrea Yates who murdered her five children represents American motherhood. But, judging from his past behavior, Mack will present himself as a rallying point for fathers who have been estranged by family court judges.
Shortly after the Weller shooting, Mack left a message on his cousin's answering machine, "If anything happens to me, please make sure that the true story about the injustices that are going on in that courtroom get out to the media and the public."
If Mack and his supporters convince the public that he represents oppressed dads, then the father's rights movement may be damaged beyond repair.
Consider the facts:
Mack allegedly slashed the mother of his child to death in the garage of the family home while their 8-year-old daughter was upstairs.
Mack does not seem to have experienced the most common complaint voiced by divorced fathers: the denial of access to children.
According to the Reno Gazette Journal, the order issued by Weller in May 2005 included temporary joint physical custody by both parents on a week-on, week-off basis. Mack was also ordered to pay $849 in monthly child support from a reported monthly income of $44,000.
Other terms of the separation seem harsh. For example, Mack was to give Charla $10,000 a month as well as pay the mortgage of a family home to which she received possession. Nevertheless, on the defining issues of father's rights -- access to children and child support -- the court ordered arrangements were not unreasonable.
Moreover, Mack clearly sees himself as a wonderful father and may well argue this position despite his actions. Legal expert Dahlia Lithwick stated in the Washington Post, "I billed hundreds of hours on the Mack case many years ago, when…he was fighting his first wife for custody of their children…Darren was somehow always at the other side of my desk, or on the other end of the phone line, urging me to think about why his kids needed him, and why he alone was their ally."
Mack received custody of the two children. Charla, his second wife, helped to raise them.
On a heartbreaking note, in 1998 Charla and the three children put the following message on a Reno billboard: "The Mack Family Presents: Darren Mack. 1998 Father/Husband of the Year. A unanimous decision…"
Whatever Mack thinks of himself, his image as Father of the Year must not be allowed to stand.
To retain any credibility, father's rights advocates must distance themselves from Mack at breakneck speed and they must do so definitively.
The veteran advocate Glenn Sacks has stated, "I condemn without qualification the crimes allegedly committed by Darren Mack."
Sacks acknowledges that "some on the not insubstantial lunatic fringe of the fathers' rights movement see Mack as some sort of freedom fighter…"; he utterly rejects that interpretation.
He writes, "Mack is not a good man trapped in a bad system. He is a bad guy. Because of men like him the system had to create protections for women, and unscrupulous women have misused those protections to victimize countless innocent men. Men like Mack aren't the byproducts of the system's problems--they are the problem."
I hope the father's rights movement en masse adopt Sacks' hard line -- not the soft line of "I don't condone his actions BUT I understand them."
There is no BUT about Charla's murder. A strategically-placed BUT only insulates the speaker from blame while he proceeds to excuse the inexcusable. It lets the listener know that the speaker is condoning the action on some level.
Nothing condones the murder of Charla Mack.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.