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Some Perspectives On Violent Crime

IT may be simply that we have just been through August, when the newspapers and newscasts seem to be filled by default with reports of crime and violence. But however much news organizations play up these tragedies, they aren't inventing them out of whole cloth.

The murder of the father of basketball superhero Michael Jordan is only one of the most visible of this summer's episodes. In some ways it is one of the most troubling, because it seems to suggest that no one is safe.

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What can be done about increasing violence?

Charles Patrick Ewing is a professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a forensic psychologist who is troubled by a decrease in the age of young people committing capital crimes. Those whose criminal careers might once have started in their late teens are now killing at the ages of 11, 12, or 13. He says young criminals are responding to violence committed against them within the family. Family violence, in turn, he sees as increasing because of a greater social tolerance for it, in part brought on by media reports that suggest that crimes that are still statistical anomalies are nonetheless everyday occurrences. As people become desensitized to violence their own inhibitions against committing it themselves may wear down.

Professor Ewing also sees a ``failure to transmit values.'' When he asks a child or teenager who has killed someone, ``What was in your head when you pulled the trigger?'' the answer is often, in effect, ``Nothing.'' He asks, ``If you don't have the value of life, what other value can you have?''

Randy Martin, professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa., also sees crime and violence as connected with values, with a lack of spirituality, as he puts it. ``And by spirituality, I'm not thinking of organized religion; I'm thinking of a sense of connectedness to a larger whole.... We need to find more outlets for the spirit - whatever that is.'' He also sees a need to move to a conflict-resolution model for handling crime. We wage ``war on crime,'' but we need police who make peace, not just arrests.

The notion that crime is always getting worse may be one of the constants of the human experience. But Jeffrey Adler, a University of Florida historian, has tracked homicide (a ``wonderfully precise category'' of crime whose definition has held steady for centuries, he says) back to the 13th century in Western Europe, and he finds a broad long-term trend toward lower rates of violence. Similarly, the American trend from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th was for decreasing violence, with shorter-term increases after wars in both Europe and America. Since the mid-20th century, though, the trend has been upward for violence worldwide, according to Professor Adler.

Literacy and (perhaps surprisingly) urbanization and industrialization helped reduce violence in 19th-century America; as successive waves of new immigrants were absorbed into American society, their crime rates fell. In his research, Adler is trying to determine why those mechanisms worked well in the last century to see what they might suggest about today's problems.

Surely part of handling the crime problem - especially in the United States - involves reducing the number of guns in circulation. An opinion column in the Chicago Tribune has called on Michael Jordan to lend his prestige to the handgun control effort.

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But gun control can't substitute for moral development, for ``values'' and spirituality as these experts are calling for. Wichita State University psychologist Don Nance is not alone in his observation that American society does ``a lousy job of pairing rights with responsibilities,'' or in his lament of the ``cultural ethos that says we're not responsible for our actions.''

We need to make more decisions favoring the middle ground: An officer on the beat telling a group of teens to move along does not damage their civil liberties irreparably; nor do sensible restrictions on guns infringe on citizens' rights to bear arms.

Those who have been the victims of violence need compassion and support, but society cannot afford to feel overwhelmed.

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