Posted on July 14, 1997 in Washington Watch
The inner-city killings of Arab store owners continue to plague our community, with new reports of murders in New York and Ohio. Each new incident is a fresh reminder of the continuing problem of violence that affects all of America.
U.S. law enforcement officials and political leaders have reported some improvement in recent years. Both murder rates and number of violent crimes have declined, continuing a downward trend begun in 1994. The annual drop averages a few percentage points each year, leaving 1993’s 23,271 murders and 1.8 million violent crimes the decade’s high-point.
Politicians disagree as to the cause of this slight but steady decline during the past four years. Some point to tougher law enforcement policies and increases in the number of law enforcement personnel. Others point to a steadily improving economy and the rapid increase in the number of jobs available.
Despite these improvements, however, there is general agreement that violent crime remains an American nightmare, and a continuing crisis that threatens the quality of life for all Americans.
The statistics are staggering. Even with the decline in the number of murders, which this year may drop to below 20,000 for the first time in eight years, it is shocking that over 210,000 Americans have been murdered in the past decade, and over 17,000,000 Americans will have been victims of violent crimes during the same period.
The category of violent crimes includes: aggravated assault, robbery, murder, and rape.
So disturbing are these overall statistics that the prestigious American Sociological Association (ASA) undertook a three year study of the problem. The report of their findings entitled Social Causes of Violence is an effort to answer the question “What causes the extraordinarily high levels of violence in U.S. society?”
The ASA study is a straightforward presentation of data on all aspects of violence in the U.S. coupled with several important observations, conclusions, and recommendations for further study.
Some of the more unsettling observations found in the study are:
1. “the high levels of serious violence appears to be uniquely `American’ . . . rates of violence are much higher in the U.S. than in any other industrialized nation.”
2. “American society is engulfed in a world of violence. Crime is rampant, the incidence of child and spouse abuse is staggering and violence exists in all segments of communities across the nation.”
3. “People have become accustomed to the grim nature of violence in our society and particularly to the horrifying nature of specific highly publicized acts of homicide and brutality. The senseless carnage and random murders in schools, restaurants, shopping malls, and suburban commuter trains; robbery attempts against tourists; injuring and killing of children caught in the crossfire of gang warfare; and random drive-by shooting are the kinds of incidents that generate public outrage and reinforce that perception that there are no longer any safe havens.
“No aspect of social life, whether householders, schools, health care facilities, recreation centers, work places, or businesses, and no geographical locations . . . are free from violence.”
4. ” A big social cost of violence . . . is the widespread fear that it looms . . . the general insecurity and feeling of being threatened by violence and the widely held view that no place is safe have produced an incalculable toll on the quality of contemporary American life”
While the ASA report calls for more extensive research into the social causes of the pervasive violence, it does make several initial assessments:
1. Regional factors are important:
The south of the U.S. has a significantly higher crime rate than any other region of the U.S. Despite its smaller population, the South has 37.4% of all U.S. crime. And crime among Southern whites is significantly higher than among Northern whites. Likewise, urban areas have much greater crime rates than rural areas—over four times higher.
In both instances, a factor that may account for the difference is the extent of poverty and social dislocation which are greater in cities and in the South than in other areas of the U.S.
2. The importance of economics and race:
Murder is the leading cause of death among African American youth. And although African Americans account for only 12% of the U.S. population, they represent 1/2 of the homicide victims.
But the ASA study notes that, “differences in white/black victimization rates disappear in higher income neighborhoods. Thus what may appear to be race factors are more a function of conditions emanating from economic deprivation and lack of employment opportunities and from the quality of life and social circumstances in low-income communities.”
3. Violence is increasing among youth:
Violence is increasing rapidly among American youth, while it is declining among older Americans, and is becoming a serious problem in U.S. schools.
A study cited by the ASA report notes that 135,000 guns are brought into U.S. schools each day. And each month 2.4 million high school students have something stolen from them while 282,000 are attacked. And each month 5,200 teachers are attacked (with 1,000 receiving medical attention.)
4. Drugs and guns are critical factors:
One half of all violent crimes (almost 900,000 incidents) and over 70% of all murders (almost 15,000 annually) involve the use of guns. In addition, almost 40% of all homicides are drug related.
5. Breakdown of families and communities are important:
Sociological studies show that when the important social control mechanisms of families and neighborhoods are destroyed, violence increases. Where there is social disorganization, there will be violence. This is especially a problem in inner cities where there is a systemic overcrowding, long-term unemployment, and poverty.
6. Mass media plays a role:
Many recent studies show that there is a strong connection between exposure to television violence and aggressive behavior. It is estimated that American children watch more hours of television yearly than they spend in school. It is also estimated that during that time they see thousands of acts of violence including murder on cartoon shows, dramas, and adventure programs. Statistics suggest that this pervasive violence in the media produces an acceptance of violence and, in some cases, increases aggressive behavior.
In fact, violence has been a pervasive problem in America since the birth of our nation. A generation ago, a prominent U.S. publishing company issued a series of historical studies on violence in American life. The series included studies on violence in: the revolutionary war; the conquest of the “frontier”; the period of slavery and the “wars” against the Indians and the Spanish, the civil war; the battles against the labor movement; the development of organized crime and urban gangs; and the urban unrest in the 1960’s.
They called the series “the Cherry Pie” books because of their belief that “violence was tragically as American as cherry pie.”
There are consequences to this history of violence. America is a free society that has provided political and economic opportunity for countless millions. But when these opportunities have been denied, violence has occurred. And this violence, in the end, benefits no one. It has become an endemic plague.
What the ASA study points to is the need to:
Â· repudiate the culture that glorifies violence or makes it appear normal;
Â· protect and foster social institutions (the family, neighborhoods, and religious centers) that spread and preserve social values;
Â· eliminate guns and drugs from society; and
Â· provide economic opportunity for all in our society.
While this study and its recommendations are based on American society, surely there are lessons here that can be instructive for other societies as well.
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