Violence and violence prevention

When Americans are asked what social problem bothers them most, the majoritymention violence. Certainly there is no question that violence in this country has become epidemic. But while there are many who are quick to propose building new prisons to house violent criminals, there are all too few who stop to consider the origins of violence in this culture. As former Surgeon GeneralC. Everett Koop stated in 1984, "Violence is every bit as much a public health issue for me and my successors in this century as smallpox, tuberculosis,and syphilis were for my predecessors in the last two centuries."

Many mental health experts believe that all violence represents an attempt toachieve justice, or more correctly, to achieve what the violent individual perceives to be justice. Violence is thus seen as the pursuit of retribution or compensation for what one feels one is owed. With this interpretation, violence can be seen to run like a thread though the tapestry of American history.

The opening of the American West, for example, is filled with stories of violence as in the pursuit of justice or some higher purpose. In 1845, the New York Democratic Review wrote that it was "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our multiplying millions," thus providing a rationalization for the victimization ofindigenous Americans by advancing the argument that the latter lacked any moral right to resist the expansion of European civilization. So powerful was this argument that an entire culture and was almost completely destroyed in the thirty-year span between 1860 and 1890.

Actually, the use of violence against Native American to achieve a "higher" end can be traced back at least another 250 years. As colonists came to America, settlements sprang up from Connecticut to Maine. And as the population expanded, the remaining Indian nations in New England (including the Pequot, then considered to be the strongest of these) came to be seen as of no benefit to the colonists whatsoever. So in 1636, sixteen years after establishing Plymouth Colony, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, entirely without provocation, set out and massacred an entire Pequot village. One year later, the English army and its allies slaughtered some 600 inhabitants in another village.The Plymouth governor wrote, "It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire... But the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice and (we) gave praise thereof to God..."

Perhaps no other piece of literature speaks to the tragic flaw of violence inthe American character as does Herman Melville's Moby Dick. In that novel, Captain Ahab, convinced that the great white whale Moby Dick embodies pure evil, sets out aboard the whaler Pequod to kill the whale in the belief that in doing so, he would secure justice and destroy evil. The voyageresults in the destruction of Ahab and his entire crew, except for the narrator who survives to tell the story. Captain Ahab emerges as an archetypal figure in his willingness to completely sacrifice rational self-interest and concern for others for the sake of some abstractly defined sense of justice and the punishment of evil.

But this abbreviated American history would be incomplete if it failed to point out that most of the immigrants to America themselves came here in flightfrom starvation, persecution, warfare, or genocide. Many of these people hadbeen victims of theft or violence in the lands that they left. Some of the same people who went on to steal land from the original Americans had been similarly victimized in their former homelands. Thus, the historical record suggests that the violent acts by Europeans against the indigenous peoples of thiscontinent were in fact self-perpetuating acts whose antecedents can be traced to events that occurred before the Colonists ever set foot here. This observation is particularly interesting in light of what is now known about the transmission of violent behavior in families.

Mental health experts, for example, tell us that violent parents beget violent children, with the second generation acting violently out of a sense of shame or anger. Some of the most violent criminals in prisons today are personswho were objects of violence in early childhood. Many saw their closest relatives murdered in front of their eyes. As children, some were shot, beaten, tortured, burned, drugged, or raped by their parents. Many suffered broken bones as the result of childhood abuse, others were locked in closets or attics for extended periods. And although childhood abuse is by no means a necessaryand sufficient condition for producing a violent adult, there is plenty of statistical evidence linking physical violence as a regular experience in childhood to violent behavior in adults.

Today, domestic violence occurs so often in the United States that the American Medical Association declared it to be public health hazard (1992). Women between the ages of 19 and 29 are particularly at risk. In 1994, violence against women was declared a federal crime. More women receive injuries at the hands of their intimate partners than from any other single cause. In New YorkCity, it is the leading cause of death among women. Another way of looking atthe problem is to note that, during the Vietnam War, there were 58,000 American soldiers killed in Southeast Asia; in the same period of time, 51,000 women were murdered by their domestic partners in America.

Child abuse and domestic violence frequently occur in the same family. Researchers estimate that 50-70% of men who assault their wives also abuse their children. Children are 1,500 times more likely to be abused in homes where domestic violence already occurs. Domestic violence may result in physical injury, psychological harm, or neglect of children. There is a documented relationship between family violence and juvenile delinquency. Abused children have asix times greater chance of committing suicide, 24% greater chance committingsexual assault crimes, and a 50% greater likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol. Findings show, however, that children growing up in violent homes do not need to be physically abused to take on violent and delinquent behavior; itis simply enough to witness their mother's abuse. Studies have shown that adolescents who are exposed to high levels of violence in their neighborhoods are at increased risks of engaging in antisocial behavior and of suffering from anxiety, depression and psychosomatic illness. Disturbingly, a 1997 Centersfor Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that nationwide, 8.5% of all students carry a weapon to school, and 4% of all students missed one ormore days of school in the month preceding the study because they felt unsafe at school or traveling to school.

While the overall mortality rate among U.S. children decreased 33.5% between1979 and 1995, the number of homicides and suicides among American children have dramatically increased over the last two decades, according to a report issued in 1999 by the Public Health Policy Advisory Board. In 1995, the Commonwealth Fund Commission on Women's Health reported that an individual's response to an acute violent event is largely the same whether that person is experiencing trauma from war, incarceration in a concentration camp, or domestic assault. The commission noted that is not uncommon for the victim of a violentact to experience paralyzing terror, anxiety bordering on panic, loss of control, and sudden realizations of his/her own vulnerability, with reactions that can include nightmares, insomnia, poor concentration, amnesia, hypervigilance, and hypersensitivity to any association even remotely connected with violence, such as the slamming of a door.

U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that American teenagers experience thehighest rates of violent crime, while blacks experience the highest rates ofserious violent crime. The homicide rate is highest for teens and young adults. Victims of violent crimes have reported that juveniles age 12-17 committed about one-quarter of the serious violent crimes in 1997.

A 1999 study sponsored by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry's Committee on Preventive Psychiatry proposed three preventive strategies focused onboth communities and individuals to help reduce current levels of teen violence. The study concluded that prevention can take one of three forms: universal preventive measures aimed at the general population, for example, federal and state programs that enhance prenatal care, maternal/infant care and nutrition, and family management for preschool children and parents (this idea is based in part on an observed link of violence to poor nutrition); selective strategies focused on high-risk (usually urban) communities suchas Head Start, gun-free zones around schools, job training programs aimed athigh-risk youth, and midnight basketball leagues; and indicated programs consisting of efforts aimed at teens thought to be at especially high risk for violent behavior. In the case of indicated programs, the researchers cited the so-called Boston miracle, where a combination of well-funded efforts reduced the number of teens killed by guns to zero for a period of over 2 years. While some other researchers agree that more and better interventions are needed to mitigate the human suffering of perpetrators and victims alike, they fear the funding and political will for these efforts will be lacking in an era more concerned with punishment than prevention.

Finally, it is worth noting that some scientists have questioned whether attempts to end violence in America have any hope of succeeding as long as legislators continue to approve countless dollars each year to build and deploy ever larger weapons of mass destruction. As Albert Einstein himself pointed out,"The invention of nuclear weapons has changed everything--except the way wethink...We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind isto survive." Thus the stakes (global destruction) have gotten higher while the game (human violence) remains the same.

When the federal government announced plans in 1979 to locate the MX missileon ancient tribal lands in Nevada, Native American leaders raised their voices in protest, arguing that "if we human beings persist in what we are doing,...we will wipe out the whole galaxy." Given the little progress that has beenmade toward the elimination of violence from American culture over the past350 years, these words seem especially prescient.

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