The Problem of Violence


Let's begin, as Mark Rosenberg of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests, by describing something of what we know about violence.

Violence is the intentional use of force to harm a human being. Its outcome is injury--physical or psychological, fatal or nonfatal. Official statistics about fatalities, the direst of outcomes, suggest the magnitude of the problem: injuries from all causes are the leading cause of death for persons under the age of 45, and 38 percent of all deaths from injury are the result of violence. Recent statistics further suggest that both the proportion and number of violent deaths are increasing. These facts, Rosenberg argues, make violence a public health concern, as much as (or more than) a criminal problem. Violence calls for preventive as well as punitive action.

A public health approach to violence, Rosenberg tells us, begins with a scientific assessment of epidemiological data, to identify patterns and risk factors. "The public conception of homicide is that you walk into a convenience store late at night, there's a robbery going on, and you--unlucky you--are caught in the cross fire." In fact, the data show, most homicides are not related to any other felony. The assailant and victim--almost invariably male--usually know each other. Most often, alcohol is involved, and a firearm is present. What emerges, then, is a very different scenario, Rosenberg says: "Two young men who know each other, sitting around drinking, talking. An argument starts about something. It escalates, it flares. Someone has a gun, pulls it out, and--boom--that's it." Since the mid-1980s, the homicide rate among teenagers has increased, almost all of the increase due to firearms. Yet there is no evidence that there is more fighting now, or more criminal activity. "What has happened is that the fighting is more deadly," says Rosenberg. And both assailants and victims are getting younger: "Kids are shooting kids." In 1988, for the first time, firearms killed more children than all other causes combined.

According to Mindy Fullilove, Associate Professor at Columbia University and Research Psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, we also know that young people--disproportionately African-American and Hispanic--concentrated in poor, "blasted out," physically fragmented urban communities are especially at risk. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men and women in this country. Violence is endemic in some communities, a part of the culture of everyday life, creating a perpetual post-traumatic syndrome characterized by hyper-vigilance, defensiveness, assertiveness, and hostility. Comparing the experiences of inner-city kids today with his own adolescence in East Los Angeles, film actor, producer, and director Edward James Olmos fears that the act of killing, itself, has now become a form of addiction: "You shoot a human being, and the chemical situation in your body changes. Every time you think about it, it sets off energy levels in your brain. Our kids are getting high off of it, and they've found that it lasts a lot longer than heroin or crack."

This paints a compelling picture of a social malady that appears to be getting worse. But how does this objective reality relate to the public's perception of violence as a social problem that warrants concern and action, among the many other issues that compete for our attention?