A FEW MONTHS ago, I spent an instructive if depressing morning watching the prosecution of domestic violence cases in a local courtroom.
I came away somewhat comforted by the fact that prosecutors and police seem to be taking these cases much more seriously than they did in the past.
But the number and nature of these cases raise uncomfortable questions about society's tolerance for abusive responses to the stresses and strains of human relationships.
From the barbed, verbal put-downs you can hear on almost any television sitcom and in many family conversations, to the free-floating anger that explodes in "road rage," it is obvious that stress is taking a heavy toll on plenty of relationships.
Bumper stickers encouraging people to "commit random acts of kindness" seem to be outnumbered by insulting ones. Meanwhile, the parade of accused abusers through American courtrooms is just the tip of the iceberg.
For most of human history, the issue we now refer to as "domestic violence" wasn't an issue at all. Intimate relationships touch deep chords, and spouses can push the buttons of their partners as surely as a whiny child.
Add that element to patriarchal interpretations of marriage that granted men legal as well as moral authority over their wives, and eruptions of violence, especially by men, were long viewed as nobody else's business.
Those old attitudes have taken a huge toll in lives and health. But since the opening of the world's first shelter for battered women in London in 1964, centuries of silence have begun to give way to discussion and activism.
It's making a difference. As women become a more integral part of the work force, businesses are learning that domestic violence can cost them money.
The Family Violence Prevention Fund cites surveys that have found that family violence costs employers millions of dollars each year in increased health care and health insurance costs, higher rates of absenteeism, employee turnover and lost productivity.
One study found that 66 percent of the Fortune 1000 senior executives surveyed believed that their company's financial performance would benefit from addressing domestic violence among their employees.
Most Americans fear random crimes -- the unexpected mugging that leaves you frightened and fearful or the burglary that makes you feel vulnerable and violated. But family violence is more personal, more vengeful and, in many cases, far more brutal.
Sheryl Haines was 41 on the day after Christmas in 1994 when her estranged husband entered the bedroom of her Howard County home and shot her three times. The bullets didn't kill her. So her husband beat her with his gun, dragged her outside and ran over her with his car.
Yesterday, the lives of women like Sheryl were remembered on the Mall in Washington, as marchers paid tribute to 1,500 "silent witnesses" -- women killed by domestic violence.
The silent witnesses are free-standing, life-size wooden figures painted red, each carrying the name and story of a woman murdered by domestic violence.
That's dramatic testimony to a problem that is, thankfully, no longer a silent issue. The marchers brought these stories to the Mall, the same spot where crowds of male "Promise Keepers" gathered a couple of weeks ago.
Some of those men claimed to have been abusers who had seen the error of their ways, yet many feminists seem more concerned with criticizing their lingering patriarchal attitudes than with praising their progress.
As that rift makes clear, the conversations across these divides are every bit as delicate as those between armed empires.
Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 10/19/97