Monthly Archives: December 2012

Where Violence Thrives

Whether we’re talking about youth violence, sexual violence, or intimate partner violence, all of which can involve gun violence, there are similarities in the lists of risk factors for perpetrating these crimes.

Violent offenders often have antisocial beliefs and attitudes.  They tend to be aggressive and hostile.  They are frequently involved in drug and alcohol use.  Perpetrators have typically been exposed to violence, such as witnessing family violence, being physically abused, or being sexually assaulted.  They commonly hold very rigid gender roles, equate manhood with aggression, and exaggerate their male stereotypical behavior.

Relationships play an important role.  Violent offenders often have families fraught with instability, maltreatment, patriarchy, and other unhealthy interactions.  Gang involvement increases the risk of certain types of violence, while rejection by peers increases the risk for others.  Low academic performance and unemployment are also common among perpetrators of violence.

People who commit violence don’t evolve in a vacuum.  They are influenced by family functioning, friends’ behaviors, and community dynamics.  Impoverished neighborhoods, socially disorganized neighborhoods, and violent neighborhoods increase the risk of perpetrating violence.  Communities that tolerate violence and fail to enforce sanctions against these crimes also increase the risk of violent offenses.  People in these communities live with many stressors, have fears, and lack faith in authorities to effectively address violence, which raises the risk of committing violent acts.

People see the lists of risk factors and still miss the point.  People who perpetrate violence are abusing their power in a particular situation.  In addition, many of the risk factors for perpetrating violence are examples of people and/or institutions abusing their power over others.  Reconsider the father who dominates his family, the law enforcement officer who refuses to file a police report, and the society that reinforces inequalities.

We each need to recognize our own power and refuse to abuse that power.  That would be a good first step to eradicating violence in our world.


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Not Ever, Never, or Never Again

What can we do to make sure this never happens again?  It’s the common sentiment in the form of a question that most of us toss about, and fewer of us work hard to answer, after tragedies like the Newtown massacre.

Preventing violence has many forms.  The kind of prevention we practice the most is the kind that takes place after violence has occurred.  This prevention aims to decrease the negative effects of the violence on the victims and to keep the problem from happening again.  Examples of this type of prevention include crisis services for victims, interventions with offenders, and policy changes.  The official name for what I call “well-after-the-fact prevention” is tertiary prevention.

Sometimes we’re on the ball earlier.  We realize that violence is likely to happen, and we take action to deter it.  We still have a problem, but less damage has been done by the time we intervene.  Examples of this type of prevention include educational activities, media campaigns, community-based programs, and enforcement of appropriate sanctions.  This is formally called secondary prevention—what I think of as “in-the-midst-of-an-emerging-problem prevention.”

Primary prevention is the type of prevention that we should think of first but usually consider last, if at all.  Primary prevention is the often-neglected gold standard in the violence prevention world.  This is the “pre-problem prevention” that focuses on addressing the risk factors associated with perpetrating violence.  Primary prevention efforts strive to keep individuals from developing the characteristics that allow them to see violence as a viable option.

Tertiary prevention tends to get more attention and support.  It’s all about healing.  Risk factors for perpetrating violence don’t play any role in this approach, and most of us can’t name the qualities that are tied to violent behavior.

However, if we want to be more effective in our efforts to prevent violence, we need to be aware of the factors that increase the risk of perpetrating violence.  And then we need to take steps to counteract those factors from rearing their ugly heads.

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A More Conscious Kindness

The Newtown massacre has captivated the nation’s sympathy, more so than other violent incidents in recent history.  Two weeks after the murder of 20 children and seven women, media coverage continues.  People are still talking about the changes they want to see.  A super strain of compassion is driving us to commit random acts of kindness, and to drown Newtown with so many gifts that they have been forced to nicely beg us to stop.

Rarely does an act of violence galvanize the nation the way that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has.  Why is that?  What exactly about the Newtown murders makes us behave with such caring and conviction?

On 12/23/12, Huffington Post published The Unbearable Whiteness of Suicide-by-Mass-Murder, an article by Michael Kimmel and Cliff Leek.  The authors explain how our response to violence is shaped by race.  When the shooter is white, we’re quicker to attribute his behavior to him having a mental illness.  When the shooter is not white, we’re more likely to assume his behavior is the result of the culture within which he lives.  Either way, we divest ourselves of responsibility for the shooter, regardless of his race.

However, we allow our view of the gunman to also cast a shadow on our view of the victims.  Victims who are murdered by a sick individual are likely to garner more of our sympathy than victims who are murdered because we believe they are members of a violent culture (unlike ours, of course).

There were 16 mass shootings in the United States in 2012.  Sandy Hook was the deadliest, followed by the Aurora movie theater shooting in Colorado in July.  Any guesses on the third deadliest massacre this year?  I’ll give you a hint.  In August, an Army veteran walked into a suburban place of worship and opened fire upon the families, killing six people.  Do you remember?  That shooting took place inside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

On 12/25/12, Alternative Radio rebroadcast a talk by Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.  Kumar shares how our concept of Muslims as violent extremists has manifested in both blatant and subtle acts of racism against Muslims and anyone we perceive as being Muslim.  In one example, she mentions how little attention the mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek received in comparison to other mass shootings.

On 12/26/12, KPFA conducted an interview with Beth Richie, author of Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.  Richie explains how black women are both victimized and then criminalized, while white, middle-class women are more likely to be seen as innocent victims who are taken up as national causes.  She notes that the mainstream movement argues for innocent victims instead of looking at the ways that race and class position some women to be more vulnerable to violence.  Richie shares that even when black women are murdered, the media tends to tell a story of the women’s wrongdoing, criminal records, and so forth, instead of telling the story of their victimization.

Twenty children were killed in Newtown.  Over 530 youth, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, have been shot to death in Chicago since 2008.

Our compassion and support for the Newtown families are appropriate responses.  Isn’t it time we spread our caring and kindness around?

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Countless Victims

Depending upon which news account of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting we read or hear, we are told about different numbers of victims.  Some reports emphasize the 20 children.  Many accounts also include the six school personnel for a total of 26 victims.  A small number of stories reference the 26 people murdered at the school, plus the mother killed by her son, the gunman.  Hardly any news reports include the gunman in the death toll.

The Newtown gunman shot his mother.  This woman is no less a victim of homicide because her son is the man who shot her.  This woman is no less a victim of homicide because she owned the gun that was used to kill her.  A young man made the decisions to develop and carry out a plan to massacre children and women and then to kill himself.  He, alone, committed these heinous acts.

As it turns out, we’re a judgmental bunch when it comes to victims.  We tend to believe that a person must possess the innocence of a newborn and the purity of a saint to be considered a true victim.  We look closely for perceived mistakes and flaws to disqualify people from receiving full victim status and the full warmth of our support.  Very few people emerge from this scrutiny without being blamed in one way or another for what happened to them.

The older the victims, the less likely we will see them as innocent, but some of us will actually find ways to blame children for harms committed against them.  We often take into consideration whether victims are somewhere we feel is appropriate and at a time we deem appropriate, and then we assign some degree of responsibility to the victims for their victimization.  If we think that the victims were engaged in less than upstanding behavior at the time, or ever, we tend to feel they deserved whatever happened.  We like to believe that victims had control over the violence committed against them because we like to believe that we are smart, strong, and good enough to avoid being victimized.

We especially like to blame victims who have been harmed by someone they know.  We are quick to hone in on the victims’ behavior and to neglect a thorough examination of the perpetrators’ behavior.  The victim must have incited the perpetrator to do what he did.  The victim must have known the perpetrator wasn’t stable, but failed to take action.  Why did the victim stay?  We fool ourselves into thinking that we would never allow ourselves to be in such a position . . . until we are.

Our victim-blaming ways offer us a fleeting sense of security while ironically decreasing our actual level of safety.  Victims of some crimes are too vulnerable to deal with society’s misplaced scrutiny that they don’t ever come forward.  We need to hold offenders accountable instead of making victim-blaming excuses for their behavior.  Perpetrators commit crimes because they can and, too frequently, without facing many consequences.  We should expect violent offenders, not their victims, to answer to us as citizens.

The reality is that each of us will find ourselves in circumstances where we do not have the power, where we are at the mercy of others’ decisions and actions.  Whether we are crossing a busy street, buying lunch at a restaurant, or sending our children to school, we make numerous decisions each day that essentially entrust others with our health and safety.  Sometimes strangers do very bad things, but most often it’s the men whom we love and should be able to trust who hurt us.  And then society is quick to kick us when we’re down.

Nobody deserves to be murdered or sexually assaulted or beaten or bullied.  Thinking anything else is just another way of condoning violence.

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Personal Responsibility, Not Selective Passion

People have been moved by the tragic mass murder of 20 children and 7 women in Newtown. People are signing petitions. People are pushing for gun control and other policy changes. Everybody’s passion, as selective as it may be, to take steps to prevent another massacre is heartening.

And yet, the anti-violence advocate in me is feeling less than satisfied.

We aren’t going to fix this problem solely through federal legislation, no matter how good that legislation may be. Each of us also needs to take some personal responsibility for decreasing violence in our world by sending a strong message that violence will no longer be tolerated.

Let’s stop pretending that shooting sprees are unimaginable. Let’s acknowledge that our evening news, our blockbuster movies, and our video games are besieged with massacres and other violent acts. Let’s admit that lots of people have imagined and recreated and promoted violence for their own personal gain.

Let’s stop treating violence as entertainment. Let’s stop glorifying violence. Let’s stop trying to make the killing of characters ever more realistic and gruesome. We may not be the ones producing violent movies and video games, but too many of us are making violence profitable for others. Let’s not waste one more dollar or one more hour on glorified violence disguised as entertainment.

Let’s recognize violence in all its forms. The gunman who shoots dozens of people he does not know. The man who beats his wife. The guy who rapes his date. The kid who bullies his schoolmate.

Let’s make a pledge to never behave in violent ways. Let’s speak out against violence when we see it. Let’s encourage healthy work, school, and play environments. Let’s teach our boys strength through compassion and fairness. Let’s remember that what we do, not what we say, determines what kind of role model we are, and we are all role models to somebody.

Let’s stop our complicity. Let’s do our part to create a world where our young men truly can’t imagine shooting even one person, let alone 27.

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The Elephant Has a Name

No sooner had news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre captivated our nation in shared sorrow, then gun control headlines quickly dominated the media, with mental health headlines coming in a close second.

So disheartening.

Not because I think keeping weapons out of the hands of people who are inclined to harm others is a bad thing.  And not because I’m against ensuring that people who have mental illness receive good services and support.

I simply was dismayed that 20 young children and 7 adults had been murdered, and once again it appeared that we were going to avoid talking about the elephant in the room.

But then, I heard an expert open the door a crack.  And then another expert seemed to imply there was an elephant.  I saw the articles of Jackson Katz and Michael Kimmel naming the elephant in the room.  Today, President Obama stated, “We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.”  Vice President Biden, a man who seems to understand the gendered nature of violence, the man who wrote the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, will lead a group to come up with a set of concrete proposals.

Perhaps there will be enough of us who are ready to change our social norms.  Perhaps we will find a way to sever the ties between violence and masculinity in our culture.  Perhaps we will get it right this time.

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Getting Beyond Crazy

Twenty-eight dead. Lone gunman. On Friday, December 14, 2012, news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, blazed across every form of media like a wildfire.

Many of us are responding to that wildfire with a flood of feelings. Heartbroken. Devastated. No words. In tears.

We’re sending our hearts out to those who are grieving. We’re sending our prayers.

Some of us are angry. What the hell is going on? What the hell is wrong with people?

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora movie theater. Portland mall. A reporter inevitably asks, “Why does this keep happening?”

We presume the gunman must be crazy. We say he must have snapped or been on drugs. Well, I guess we can’t do anything about that.

We call the situation a senseless act. Hey, if it’s senseless, we rational people certainly aren’t going to be able to comprehend it. Right?

We say the crime is unimaginable—meaning that we can’t imagine ourselves committing such an atrocity, so the killer had to be crazy. And now we’re back where we started, deeply sad, yet lacking any responsibility.

In other words, we let ourselves off the hook instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue and action.

Even when we push ourselves a bit more, we don’t seem to get at the crux of the matter. We talk about how we can do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of killers, as if guns are the only means of committing violence. We mention school drills, lockdowns, and other methods of teaching people how not to be victims, as if skills are a guarantee of safety in the face of a weapon-wielding murderer on a rampage. We take too much comfort in the notion of being able to protect ourselves and of dis-arming others who would try to do us harm. How safe are we, really, if somebody wants to hurt us?

If we really want to know why this keeps happening, we’re going to have to lower are well-honed defenses and be honest with ourselves. While most men would never engage in a shooting spree or any other violent crime, men committed every mass shooting, from Columbine in 1999 to Sandy Hook today. This is not a coincidence. Violence has a gendered nature.

The men who committed these killings are every bit as deadly and hateful as suicide bombers. When the mass murderer is from another country and uses a bomb to do his killing, we call him a terrorist and attribute his behavior to his culture. When the killer is from our own country and uses guns to murder others, we look for any explanation other than our culture, especially when the murderer’s white.

And let’s not skip over the fact that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter began his rampage by killing his mother. In 2011, the Seal Beach shooter killed his estranged wife and seven other people at the salon where his wife worked. In 2009, the Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home shooter was also targeting his estranged wife at her job when he killed eight people.

Sometimes murderers have one person in mind when they kill a lot of people. Sometimes they plan a massacre, but just kill their main target, as in the case of Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich, who was stalked and shot to death in the bookstore café where she worked in 2009. More often, killers have just one target, as in the murder of Kasandra Perkins, who was killed by her football-player boyfriend earlier this month. Allowing ourselves to perceive these as completely different scenarios prevents us from recognizing the factors they have in common.

We can’t fix what we don’t acknowledge. We have created a culture where men can see themselves harming others and where men see violence as a viable option. We have continued to feed a culture where others are valued so little, they are seen as expendable.

We have consistently chosen to focus on responding to violence after it has occurred. This feels more manageable than the alternatives, but this strategy only treats the symptoms of violence, rather than curing and preventing the violence. Up to this point, we’ve clearly decided that symptom management is sufficient.

Perhaps someday we will become fed up, heartbroken, and brave enough to tackle the disease of violence that’s killing our children, our women, and our men. I wonder . . . how many more will it take?

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