Despite popular belief, violent criminals aren't born with a moral screw loose. They're not even turned into criminals because they grow up in single-parent homes (although having two good parents certainly helps kids) or from living in a crime-ridden neighborhood (although it contributes). Studies show that being abused, witnessing violent behavior at home and in communities, and societal influences (including media violence treating certain young people as "thugs")—what criminology researcher Dr. Lonnie Athens of Seton Hall University calls "violentization"—turns people toward crime.
This is good news: It means we can stop most crime in our community by targeting the conditions that violentize a person's brain. But first, we need to understand what actually causes crime and get past over-simplified solutions (like calling for politicians to bellow about crime louder or hiring more cops). Be forewarned, though: As architect and big thinker Roy Decker says in ‘Eyes on the Street': A Case Study', "It's complicated." That is, you can't just blame the parents: Cycles of abuse and violence mean that many families are not equipped to prevent "violentization"—the cycle must be broken.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes details Athens' "violentization" theory in his book, "Why They Kill" (Knopf, 1999, $26.95). Athens, formerly of Georgetown University Law School, found that all seriously violent people follow a four-stage violentization process that leads to "social retardation" and, thus, violence (see box)
Athens' theory complements recent cognitive research that finds that direct exposure to aggression and violence, and indirect exposure in media, "have extreme noxious effects on development and quality of life for U.S. youth," as Columbia University's Charles E. Basch writes in the October 2011 Journal of School Health. Exposure to violence, which can include harsh parental discipline, is particularly harmful for urban youth of color who already have unequal access to good education, health care, housing and jobs: a perfect storm to cause crime.
Contrary to popular opinion, schools are the safest place for young people (and homes the least safe); less than 1 percent of homicides among school-age children occur at school. However, children take problems to school with them and then threaten, assault, bully, fight—or avoid school altogether due to fear. Verbal aggression is a huge part of the violentization problem, especially for children of color who often hear "hate words" about their race, sexual orientation, disability, religion, etc., Bausch says.
Aggressive and violent tendencies have three major cautions, per Bausch:
1. Mental health: Witnessing aggression causes depression, anxiety, sadness, withdrawal—conditions than can lead to aggression in the recipient, who hasn't learned self-regulation skills.
2. Connectedness: Young people need to participate and connect socially to stay engaged in school. Kids who are less victimized like school more.
3. Absenteeism: Students who perceive school as dangerous, physically or emotionally, often avoid school. Many will later drop out.
Schools must help children learn "pro-social" behaviors, Bausch says, or as Athens advises, to teach children to engage with others as community members, thus building empathy skills. The men argue for the kinds of efforts this GOOD Ideas issue lays: life-skills training; anti-bullying programs; mentoring of at-risk children, discouraging overly aggressive coaching athletes, counseling for belligerent youth (and adults), smart gun control, intervention and rehabilitation. Athens may disagree with conservative approaches to discipline and violence, but he doesn't sugarcoat the need for harsh punishment of what he calls "ultraviolent" criminals who are clearly past rehabilitation. The point, he argues, is to let fewer people get to that point with smart practices and interventions.
To Whip or Not?
Athens says the U.S. has a higher violent crime rate than other industrial democracies because more Americans undergo "violentization" from an early age. He criticizes the belief by many Christian conservatives that children should be punished physically. He calls on churches to encourage more humane punishment among their memberships. "The African American community, once violently enslaved," he writes, "has depended for its survival on conservative Christian values that encourage physical punishment, and has been segregated by racial prejudice into impoverished turbulent and malignant minor communities where policing is both sporadic and more punitive."
Athens adds that the South, statistically the most violent region, combines poverty, violent tendencies (including widespread gun ownership), belief in violent punishment and social segregation. "Indeed," he says, "so-called black violence may well be a subset of southern violence since African American culture derives directly from the southern culture in which it was originally embedded before the great migration of African Americans to northern cities."
The answer, he argues, is "personal witness." He rejects blaming criminal violence solely on race, poverty, culture or the genetics of "those people over there," while giving ourselves a pass on our role in forming and changing the culture that creates violence. Vulnerable children, he says per Rhodes, "suffer for our neglect of their welfare and return in vengeful wrath to plague us... ." Tolerating brutalization of children is "equally violent and equally evil, and we reap what we sow."
'Body Bag Journalism'
In 1994, criminal-justice researcher Susan Ruel presented a paper, "Body Bag Journalism: Crime Coverage by the U.S. Media" to the International Conference on Violence in the Media in New York. In it, she complained that U.S. media, especially television, had become obsessed with crime coverage—from the O.J. Simpson trial to street crimes: a "shameless pandering to the public's blood lust for violent stories." She showed that TV coverage of crime had doubled as crime rates remained stable, even while media ignored other vital issues. But the problem would worsen: As crime rates dropped dramatically in the mid-1990s, crime coverage, especially of youth crime, spiked dramatically, scaring the public and leading to harsh, counter-productive public policy that actually increased crime (see 'Deterrence: Not What You Think').
"[C]itizens who are exposed to selective media reports about certain types of crimes and not others are effectively coerced into worrying about street crimes exclusively," researcher Matthew B. Robinson wrote in Western Criminology Review. The coverage gives individuals the perception that they can do nothing to help solve crime, and that it's up to someone else: a state that criminologists warn against. Many readers will recall the ridiculous "perception-gate" controversy local media, let by The Clarion-Ledger led several years ago when then-Police Chief Robert Moore tried to explain the "perception" danger in a press briefing. His remarks were incorrectly quoted as his saying that "crime is just a perception."
Ruel warned in 1994 that "body bag journalism" was dangerous and that the public should demand changes with grassroots efforts, direct appeals to the consciences of people with influence in the news business, and more accurate depictions of violence and its causes.
This GOOD Ideas issue attempts to heed Ruel's call.
4 Steps of Violentization
1. Brutalization: The young person is threatened or abused into submitting to an aggressive authority figure, witnesses subjugation of intimates and, thus, learns to use violence to settle disputes.
2. Belligerency: The dispirited subject heeds his coach and resolves to resort to further violence.
3. Violent Performances: The violent response succeeds, and he reads respect and fear in the eyes of others.
4. Virulency: The response excites the subject, and he decides to continue using serious violence to deal with people, bonding with others who believe as he does.
Source: "Why They Kill," Richard Rhodes
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- I strongly suggest reading Richard Rhodes book, "Why They Kill," where I got the title of this piece from. Strongly. It doesn't just take the side of liberals or conservatives.
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