Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Understanding violence

We owe it to victims of violent crime to stop calling violence senseless or random.

By Jon Overton

The notion that violence is random and senseless is a tempting and comforting thought. 

Sure, there’s the whole fearing for your life part, but if there’s one thing humans wouldn’t do if their lives depended on it, it is to think about anything that makes them highly uncomfortable. The concept of senseless violence lets us simplify crime and avoid thinking about what may unnerve us.

Whether we think violence is justifiable is irrelevant. To outsiders, there often appears no reason to resort to violence, but from the perspective of those involved in a given situation, there may be perfectly good reasons to fight.

It’s easy to condemn mass shootings like the one in the Washington Navy Yard as senseless. But this does an enormous disservice to the victims. In dismissing the motives and circumstances surrounding those involved, we cannot understand why such events happen and thus struggle to prevent them in the future.

Joel Best pointed out in his 1999 book, “Random Violence” that there’s a problem with how we see violence. Part of this is a tendency to reject justifications for violence.

“This makes violence pointless — but pointless by definition,” he wrote. “The logic is circular: violence is pointless because violence is pointless. But from a different perspective, that of the participants in the shootings and fights, the violence may seem sensible — a means of proving oneself or dominating others or getting revenge and so on.”

We don’t have to approve of violence to understand why it happens. 

It’s also problematic to say violence is random. If it were, everyone would be equally likely to be a victim, but that’s far from true. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2011, men, ethnic and racial minorities (except for Asians) and young adults are the most likely to be victims of violent crime.

Understanding these patterns and enacting effective public policy is the key to decreasing crime. This requires more than throwing money at mental health services, or imposing stricter gun control. Both are beneficial, but the degree to which they get at the root of the problem of violence is minimal at best.

The Institute of Medicine stated in a 2006 report that even though some studies linked mental illness with violent crime, just 3 to 5 percent of violence is committed by the mentally ill.

Gun control is the other major part of crime reduction legislative talks and while it’s important, it’s no magic bullet. 

The most recent available data from a special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 77 percent of federal prison inmates in 2004 obtained firearms used in their offenses from illegal sources, a friend, or a relative. In 2011, 88 percent of criminal firearm violence was committed with a handgun.

Criminals already tend to bypass background checks and politically feasible legislation doesn’t stand a chance at restricting handguns. If we want to reduce violence, we have to understand that its causes are not simple enough to be fixed this way.

First and foremost, we must confront the myth of random and senseless violence. We have to empathize with the perpetrators, not just sympathize with the victims. We have to understand how crime works, which requires acknowledging many of the inequalities in our own society. It will make us extremely uncomfortable to think about these problems. 

We have to resist the comfort that a tempting, but flat-out wrong explanation of violence provides for it is anything but random or senseless.

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