America's efforts to curb violence: the anti-crime bill is not enough.
Violence, while present throughout the nation's history, has taken some unusual turns of late. Somehow, our times seem different from the past. Nancy Kerrigan and the Bobbitts are not a singing group from the 1960s, and the Menendez family is a far cry from Ozzie and Harriet. Gone are the TV days of Matt Dillon rounding up outlaws in the Old West or Elliott Ness and the Untouchables always prevailing against organized crime. A Charles Starkweather or Charles Manson used to come along once in a decade. Now, it seems a Jeffrey Dahmer pops up someplace every year. The more bizarre the incident, the bigger the news coverage.
People flock to TV, competing to tell the most lurid story. There are days when, as seen on television, it seems as if the country has taken form as one big, dysfunctional family. More and more people seem to be living on the outer edges, unsure how they'll get back. We seem to be daring each other as if we were teenagers, taking risks that in another time and place would have been unthinkable, not realizing that, unless we get things under control, the country will be the loser. The remarkable thing is that too many people don't really do anything about it. Rape, muggings, and murder pass in a blur of recognition. Street taunts raise awareness of danger that triple locks can't lessen. Slowly, violence burns and eats away at our social fabric as if it were acid so that, even when statistics show improvement, we don't feel more secure.
Violence in America goes deeper and comes closer to many families than we would like to admit. Domestic violence, for example, is America's dark little secret, now thrust into prominence by media coverage of the O.J. Simpson case.
Recently, a woman told me the following story: Her husband used to beat her regularly. She wanted to leave, but feared the consequences for herself and her children. One day, her two-year-old witnessed her husband strangling her. Finally, that incident was the catalyst for the woman to seek reguge with her two-year-old and her four-year-old in a shelter for battered women. A few days later, the two-year-old got mad at the four-year-old. The mother turned to see what was the matter and witnessed the two-year-old going for the throat of the four-year-old. I've thought often about that image of violence being passed on from one generation to another.
"The most dangerous place to be," a policeman recently said, "is in one's home between Saturday night at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m." He forgot to add, "Especially if you're a woman." One-half of all women who are murdered in America are killed by their male partners. Three-fourths of all assaults happen in the family. Thirty percent of all females admitted to emergency rooms of hospitals are there because of family violence. Moreover, this violence against women in the home causes more total injuries in America than rape, muggings, and car accidents combined. Sudden, stark, incomprehensible family violence doesn't just happen. It builds in a cycle of aggression and forgiveness and blame until it explodes--and the battered spouse almost never is a man.
When J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first nuclear explosion, he said that the nuclear bomb was a "destroyer of worlds." In the homes of battered women and abused children, violence is destroying the world of love for these innocent victims.
It also destroys the world of trust that is essential to a humane public life. Ask urban dwellers who are afraid to go to a PTA or church meeting at night, and they will tell you that the fear of violence strikes at the core of individual liberty.
Liberty is the right to choose. It often is expressed as freedom from coercion or control, but it also is freedom to make the best of our capacities and opportunities. One way to exercise liberty is through freedom of association. An individual must be able to associate in order to learn, invent, communicate, organize, pass on values, and practice democracy. Through association, we pursue our happiness. Security protects liberty and thus readily lets us create associations through which we build community. That, in turn, will guarantee liberty. The genius of all of this is the interdependence of these ideals. They are meant to chase each other in a virtuous circle. None of these ideals ever is achieved fully--whether it's liberty, happiness, or security. The vitality of our dynamic democratic society is the incessant effort to achieve them.
In communities where violence prevails, ideals are lost. Violence clogs the arteries of a free society. It stops us from reaching our hand out to our neighbor. Violence robs us of liberty. It destroys the world of trust by turning citizens into either frightened, isolated victims or into predators living off of others' pain. The blaze of violence is fed by many fires.
* Television, CDs, and video games bring it into the open windows of our homes. By the time kids reach 18, they have witnessed as many as 26,000 murders on TV. Not all those murders are the same. Some can make a child pause at the consequences of violence, while others pile up in an empty litany of bashing and stabbing and shooting that creates a numbness that in turn requires ever crueler or gorier violence to induce just a flutter of shock. Murder pays--for the sponsors. Rap anthems that glorify gang violence and the brutal abuse of women sell.
Often, the corporate search for violent product gives us violence of such intensity that it has no context at all--neither moral nor autobiographical. There is a difference between, on the one hand, the news footage of fighting in Bosnia, which portrays violence, and, on the other hand, a corporate product such as Mortal Kombat II that consists of nothing but violence--that in a sense is violence. George Gerbner, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been following violence in the media for a long time, draws a distinction between the symbolic and often tragic violence of Shakespeare and fairy tales and "happy violence," which shows no pain or tragic consequences.
Every year, 500 high schools participate in student seminars with me in New Jersey. In one of the seminars, I spontaneously asked the following question, without any idea of what the response was going to be: "How many of you in this room have ever seen someone killed?" Two hands in one small group went up. I asked, "Can you describe it?" Neither of them could. They were still too traumatized. In the second group, one senior raised his hand. I asked, "Can you describe it?" He then told what it was like to see a person standing on a street corner and have somebody else come along with an automatic rifle and shoot him in the head. He described in vivid detail what happened to the victim's head and how it looked as the person fell into a pool of blood. He said, "That's not how it looks on TV."
* There are more gun dealers in America than there are gas stations or grocery stores. In 1991, 14,373 Americans were murdered with a gun, over 12,000 with a handgun; in Great Britain, it was 486. Every 14 minutes, someone dies of a gunshot wound. Each gun injury involving hospitalization costs more than $30,000--80% of which is paid by taxpayers. There are 71,000,000 handguns in America. In 1992, 34,000 people applied for licenses to sell guns; only 37 were denied. With just 240 inspectors to police 245,000 gun dealers, this is not a surprise. In a nationwide poll, Lou Harris found that 15% of suburban and 17% of urban teenagers reported carrying a gun in the last 30 days. Forty percent of all teenagers say they can get a handgun within 24 hours if "I wanted one," and the same percentage say that the threat of violence has "made me change where I go, where I stop on the street, where I go out at night, what neighborhoods I walk in, and who I make friends with." Police officers point out that the change in violence over the last decade is that the murderers are younger, the guns more high-powered, and the acts themselves more and more random.
* Native American reservations in South Dakota have a murder rate more than double that of Los Angeles. The rate in poor, rural counties in Mississippi equals that of Newark, N.J. The common denominator in all these places is poverty and loss of hope. Vast segments of urban America are in an economic depression. Lives are being wasted, shortened, demeaned, without a job that could give dignity to each of them. At a time when our common economic future needs every able-bodied person, we see poorer, sicker, less well-educated, Third World-like enclaves emerging in our midst.
I have spoken on Native American reservations and in urban recreation and school programs for more than 25 years. A decade ago, there was a distinct difference between the kids in these two places. On a Native American reservation, they sat quietly, almost impassively, hesitant to ask questions or offer opinions. The toll of 200 years of neglect had settled so deeply that it had squelched hope. As I looked out into the audience, I stared into dead eyes with no response; no hope.
In an urban community, the kids seemed wired with energy. They couldn't sit still, bobbing up and down, left and right. They asked questions and talked incessantly with each other. Often, they didn't concentrate, but their eyes were alive with expectation. I go to speak in urban America today, and something has changed. Too often I see dead eyes. Once the hope is gone, everything is gone.
* In Detroit, nearly 80% of the babies are born to single parents. Around 30% of all children born in America are born to a single parent. Among black children, it is two-thirds. Many single mothers do heroic jobs in transmitting values and raising their children well against great odds. Many others are too young, too poor, and too unloved, and their children at birth become 15-year time bombs waiting to explode in adolescence. If you think violence among the young is bad now, wait until this army of neglected, often abused, sometimes abandoned, street-trained, gang-tested, friendless young people reach age 15. Their capacity to have any kind of meaningful attachment will be gone. One recent study said that a surprising number of urban teenage boys volunteered that they had no best friend and no one person they trusted. When only "the gang" gives life meaning, death can not be far behind.
* The recently passed Federal crime bill is an attempt to counter rising violence. Its architects worked hard and it does many good things, but its effect is uncertain. The bill is a huge heap of ideas and proposals cobbled together by representatives of a nation which is increasingly desperate about violence. In a way, it reminds me of what a group of anxious citizens would do as they threw furniture and household goods onto a barricade to stop the invading hoards. Many of the provisions appear to have the following rationale: "Well, maybe that would work; maybe it would help. So let's add it to the barricade." My fear is that the remedies come from so many different places and expand over such a wide area, it will have limited impact--notwithstanding our good intentions.
Needed: a national goal
What is missing is an over-all national goal and an admission that much of what must be done is beyond the reach of the Federal government. We need a national rebellion against violence that sets a specific target for reducing violence over 10 years--for instance, a 75% reduction in our homicide rate, which, if achieved, would place us at about England's homicide rate of today. A national rebellion against violence would be rooted in the knowledge that it strikes at the core of our democratic freedoms. It also would give us some way to measure progress. So often, Americans, on the one hand, seem catatonic in the face of violence and, on the other hand, ready to entertain the most radical solutions to stop it. Unless we have a way to tell whether what we're doing is working, people will assume the worst and we will be caught in a spiral of extreme measures, perhaps endangering our rights permanently. We simply can not replace a violent society with a repressive one. That would be a pyrrhic victory. The rebellion against violence must enhance our national example, not diminish it. We always must remember that the world is watching us more than every before.
Like so many other issues in public life, in the debate about violence, people don't listen to each other. They are frozen in the dichotomy between conservative or liberal, tough or coddling. Those who believe the answer is gun control don't listen to those who want the death penalty. Those who believe severe punishment is the answer can't see the necessity of limiting guns. Often, neither gun control advocates nor tough sentencers see the connection between societal violence and poverty, family disintegration, and exploitative media violence. Instead of confronting reality, more and more people look for the magic bullet that will stop violence dead in its tracks. The truth is much, much harder.
Truth #1: There is no miracle cure, and the answer lies closer to home than to Washington, D.C.
Truth #2: Violence will not be stopped by soft words. Every person who uses violence must pay the price in lost freedom, and "doing time," especially for the young, must be a memory that one doesn't ever want to repeat.
Truth #3: We never will counter violence unless we restrict the handguns used in 80% of America's gun murders. What is common sense to people of virtually every other country in the world becomes a constitutional crisis for Americans.
Truth #4: There is no substitute for a job. If those on the bottom of the economic ladder can be moved up just a few rungs, our efforts against violence will have acquired a powerful ally.
Truth #5: Violence is a phenomenon that is caused by twisted values and the loss of self-control. The formation of values and self-discipline begins in childhood, and teaching them is the job of parents. Unless we instill them in all our children, we have only ourselves to blame.
Truth #6: We need to make it as unfashionable to sell violence in America as it is to smoke cigarettes. We don't need censorship; we need enhanced citizenship, particularly in the board rooms.
Truth #7: Drugs and violence go together like gunpowder and a match. To ignore addiction as a national problem is to sentence many more Americans to death.
A national rebellion against violence requires individuals, communities, and all levels of government working together. People don't live in isolation. They live in communities where they go to church, play sports, pick up groceries, and raise their children. Often these days, they live in fear. What they don't realize is the power they possess if they work together. In the 1960s, an aroused citizenry that focused on an evil--legally sanctioned racism--ended racial discrimination under the law and furthered the cause of justice. Today, an aroused citizenry focused on another evil--violence--can restore our streets to order and further the cause of liberty. A street thug can intimidate an individual, but not a unified, energized community.
Politicians have to stop treating security like a product that government delivers to your home. We create security for ourselves in the same context where violence occurs--the family and the community. At the national level, we can set standards and limits, spread innovative ideas, create uniform rules, gather data, and ensure that those who commit Federally prohibited violence pay for it by a swift loss of freedom and, in some cases--such as drug kingpins who murder--by the loss of their lives. However, the real battle against violent crime committed by the young and within the family won't be waged at the Federal level. The crime bill will seem like a false promise if we forget our individual obligations as police officers, local officials, teachers, parents, spouses, and citizens.
Yet, there are some common-sense actions that the Federal government can encourage that would help prevent youthful gun violence, challenge young people with the possibility of a future without violence, and raise awareness of domestic violence while providing women a way out. First, everyone who buys a handgun must have a national identity card with his or her picture on it like a driver's license. Every transfer of a gun must be registered, with tough penalties for those who refuse. No one should be allowed to purchase more than one handgun per month, and a gun dealer ought to pay $1,000 per year for a license. These changes would hasten the day when only law-abiding citizens would have guns. Technology also might help. If we can develop heat-seeking missiles, we certainly can invent remote metal-sensing devices that will allow police to seize more illegal guns and disrupt the commerce of armed street criminals.
Second, communities should have greater access to their public schools. With Federal support, they should remain open in the evenings, on weekends, and during the summer for community use. The school is the most under-utilized asset in urban America. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and community development corporations should be allowed to provide the mentoring, safe haven, and guidance whose absence all too often contributes to delinquency. The availability of the school also would give the community a place to focus public and private resources to win back the minds and hearts that the streets have captured.
Third, to counter domestic violence, we need to get it out of the closet and then help women find a way out of a brutal environment. Domestic violence is a problem at all income levels. It is more than a serious health care issue--it's a social sickness, a tragedy that is destroying families, and an experience that spreads violence to future generations.
Every man's home may be his castle, but it's not his torture chamber, a place where he can beat someone less physically strong without consequences. Many men will deny the impulse and the existence of the behavior. Like drunks that haven't quite reformed, they promise their partners and the world that the latest episode of violence will be the last. Too often, they go back on their word, and the cycle of seeking forgiveness, blaming the victim, and committing aggression starts over again. We no longer can wait for universal personal reform to solve this problem.
When a woman is the victim of domestic violence, she must have somewhere to go. There should be a counseling hotline so that experienced professionals can guide her to an appropriate place. Above all, there must be enough battered spouse shelters with enough resources for relocation to give women some idea of where they can escape the fear of a threatening phone call or knock on the door in the middle of the night.
We have to do more than give women a place after they're beaten, though. We must prevent the violence in the first place. Every health professional--doctors, nurses, physician's assistants, social workers--should be trained to recognize domestic violence and to ask female patients about it. Asking the question hopefully will free women from considering beatings as a "family matter" that they are not sanctioned to discuss, even with their doctor.
It's not just up to health care professionals, however. If we are going to stop domestic violence, each of us, in our own spheres of influence--home, work, PTA, Little League--have an obligation to acknowledge it occurs, recognize it when we see it, and say something. It is so much easier to overlook domestic violence, turn the other way, regard it exclusively as a family matter, pretend we don't have any responsibility. If we are going to prevent it, though, we all do.
These three proposals will not end violence in America, but, combined with the crime bill and, more importantly, with an energized national community prepared to cooperate with the police and with each other, they will take us further along the path toward greater security.
A member of the Japanese Diet told me recently that, as his two girls were growing up, he looked forward to them coming to the U.S. as exchange studnets, and he looked forward to visiting them and vacationing here with his wife. Now, he says he's sending them to England, and he and his wife are vacationing in Europe. "Why?," I asked him. He replied, "The guns, the drugs, the violence--Senator, unless you get control of them, you'll lose a lot more than a few tourists; you'll no longer be the model democracy for the world."
The only way to achieve a 75% homicide reduction within a decade and in a way consistent with our democracy is to assume individual responsibility, to enlist all who love their communities and nation in a rebellion that is waged locally, neighbor by neighbor, building by building, and at the same time to erect bonds of community that render violence moot. The fires that feed the blaze of violence only can be extinguished when all of us act as citizens to achieve what everyone in a democracy deserves--the right to live a life without fear of unexpected random violence whether on the street, at school, or in the home.
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|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1994|
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