The Barbarian Within
Be afraid, be very afraid. The person down the hall, or driving in the slow lane, or sitting across from you at the breakfast table could be another Matthew Beck, a ticking time bomb waiting to violently explode when the wrong set of circumstances presents itself.In a fit of rage and powerlessness, Beck two Fridays ago unmercifully slaughtered four coworkers at Connecticut lottery headquarters in Newington, maniacally telling his victims "bye-bye" as he squeezed the trigger of his semi-automatic handgun. We will never know with any certainty what precipitated the tragedy, or what thoughts ran through Beck's mind before he undertook his murderous rampage. After shooting and killing lottery executive "Ott" Brown in the building's parking lot, Beck put a bullet through his own head.In typical knee-jerk fashion, Beck's actions have prompted calls by legislators for tougher gun-control laws. The shootings so close to home have spurred watercooler conversations about the nature and apparent increasing frequency of violence in our society. But while we may like think of ourselves as a civil society, Matthew Beck didn't pull the trigger alone.Beck, and others like him, are creations of America's violent past. Our culture and history have conditioned the Matthew Becks of America to behave savagely when a situation becomes seemingly terminal. America's political, social and cultural history is marked by images of inexplicable violence and institutional crime in which our whole society marinates. History has taught us to be vicious because as civil rights activists H. Rap Brown once said: "Violence is as American as cherry pie.""Violence is so ingrained and subtle," says Michael Borrero, director of the Institute of Violence Reduction at the University of Connecticut's School of Social Work. "When we're faced with a situation that seems unmanageable, our reaction nine out of 10 times is going to be violent. You dump the baby in a garbage can or get a gun to kill your boss. Historically, we have dealt with our differences in a violent way."Indeed, although the crime rate has dipped in recent years, the United States remains the most vicious of all the industrialized nations, a barbarity some experts believe will worsen as the new millennium begins. "We have a streak of violence in our society that is part of our culture and part of our history," says The Rev. Robert Mahoney, a sociologist at Rockhurst College, in Kansas City, Mo.In the estimation of some, America has, is and will always be the most violent society on Earth. In their view, America will implode because a nation in which an emerging majority of citizens are unwilling to obey the law cannot survive. More than 30 years ago killer Charles Manson warned parents to beware their homicidal children. Today Manson's words seem prophetic as Americans seem doomed to live in a violent society. "There are many factors involved here and no simple solution in sight," says Mahoney.To understand the root of American violence and the relationship it has played in the development of the United States, it is important to understand what drives a violent action. Simply put, while the causes of violence on any level -- either government sanctioned under the guise of war or practiced by individuals -- are myriad, violence is foremost about power. Even inexplicable crimes, such as the lottery massacre, along with crimes of passion and greed, are part of this rubric."When we look at violent action itself, regardless of who's committing it, it's about powerlessness," UConn's Borrero says. "It's about getting power in a powerless situation. Why do men rape men in prison? It's not sexual. It's all about power."Violence occurs for economic, social, religious, racial and political reasons, and crimes are committed by individuals, small groups, and large mobs. Concurrently, violence is directed against individuals and crowds alike, and has manifested itself in various ways throughout our history, including murders, lynching, assassinations, feuds and riots."While many Americans ... often explain crime as 'caused' by things beyond the individual's control, we do so only by overlooking an essential social fact: committing a crime is an intensely personal decision," says Andrew Peyton Thomas, in his book, Crime and the Sacking of America, The Roots of Chaos, (Brassey, Inc., 1994). "Crime is the most extreme form of selfishness ... crime's first prerequisite is a decision to revolt against one's family, community and society ... Everything that society does to encourage selfishness directly or indirectly encourages crime."While other countries have had their own violent streaks, the United States is unrivaled in institutionalizing violence to the point where it is acceptable behavior.For example, in the early days of the Republic dueling was a highly accepted form of problem-solving and one that was used by all strata of society, including America's leaders. Every elementary school student knows the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, but in 1806, before he became president, Andrew Jackson shot and ultimately killed John Dickinson, a successful lawyer and fashionable gentleman from Nashville, in a duel. Although Dickinson hated Old Hickory politically, the dual came after Dickinson made insulting comments about Jackson's wife.This gentlemen's "code of honor" dominated ante-bellum life in the deep South and according to some experts is one of the reasons why violence has become so entrenched in contemporary America's psyche. The code of honor practiced by Burr, Hamilton and Jackson was a way to gain respect and cooperation. Today street gangs call it the "code of the street" where personal disrespect is not tolerated.Southern society also used violence and force as a way to protect a way of life dependent on slavery, according to Roger Lane, professor of history at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. Once slavery was abolished, this violence morphed into lynchings and other types of racial hatred that underscored the days of Jim Crow. When lynchings became a bloody footnote to history, racial and ethnic violence was transmuted into what we now term hate crimes."The Southern system was built on force. It was built on a caste system," Lane says. "Ultimately [today's] violence goes back to slavery."Historically, crime in America has taken on chameleon-like qualities, shedding one form for another. The frontier was a cauldron of violent behavior where for a time the law proved useless. In addition, during the various waves of immigration during the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of ethnic groups, especially the Irish and the Italians, were subjected to increasing amounts of hostility and hatred.Moreover, infanticide was a major problem during the 19th century. As the Depression lingered in the 1930s, bank robbers such as Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger terrorized the countryside and frustrated law enforcement officials. Social and racial unrest during the 1960s caused many cities to burn."Violence is built into our values and into our history," says Joseph Boskin, Boston University professor of history. "America is the most unusual experiment in the history of the world. We're a pluralistic nation. I'm surprised we're not more violent."According to the numbers, we are more violent today than in years past, a trend we can ill afford to continue. Modern life has become a minefield. We have to be wary of coworkers who go off the deep end; on guard against motorists who vent their frustration when you pass them on the wrong side of the road; and fearful of the gangs who control the streets of the city.When you look at the statistics, it's hard to imagine how we have been able to survive as a society. In the United States some kind of crime occurs every two seconds. A burglary is committed every 10 seconds, a rape every 46 seconds. The violent crime rate has risen 560 percent since 1960 and nearly one-third of all crimes today involve violence.We survive because we adapt exceedingly well, and are content to ignore the underlying problems of violence. The result has been a universal fear among law-abiding citizens. Sixty percent of Americans limit the places they go by themselves because they are fearful of crime. Twenty-two percent limit the places or times that they will work. In addition, it is conservatively estimated that American businesses suffer a loss of $128 billion annually because of the costs associated with crime, the price of which is eventually passed on to the consumer.Politicians will tell you in no uncertain terms that things have gotten better over the past few years. It is no secret that the rate of violent crime has recently dropped. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's latest statistics, during the first quarter of 1997, serious crime decreased 4 percent when compared with the same period for 1996. Murder was down 9 percent; robbery down 9 percent and aggravated assault down 3 percent. But did you know:* From 1990 to 1994, the body count from murder was 119,732, more than twice the 58,000 soldiers killed during the Vietnam War?* The rate at which Americans are victimized by violent crime is more than twice the rate at which we are injured in motor vehicle accidents and 10 times the rate at which we die from heart attacks?* Each year nearly 1 million people are victims of violent crime while at work?* Males are twice as likely as females to be victims of handgun crimes while blacks three times as likely?Children, meanwhile, are at risk, both as victims and as the perpetrators of crimes, like no other time in our history. Consider some of these numbers:* 18 to 24-year-olds are more likely to be victims of a homicide and males, 14 to 24, while they make up 8 percent of the population, constitute 27 percent of all homicide victims and 48 percent of all murderers.* American youth are exposed to alarmingly high levels of violence, either as witnesses, as victims or as aggressors and such exposure to violence is greater among inner city youth.* According to a recent survey conducted by Case Western Reserve University, of all the schools they queried 32 to 82 percent of school-age males say they have seen someone beaten up at school while 14 to 46 percent say they have witnessed a knife attack. Among females across all the school sites, 24 percent to 82 percent say they witnessed someone being beaten at school, while seven to 44 percent say they have seen a knife attack.The rising tide of youth crime is only expected to worsen in the new millennium. According to some experts, a new generation of street criminals is upon us. Between now and 2010, the number of juveniles in the population will increase substantially -- nearly 1 million, half of them male. The result, they say, will be the worst cadre of criminals American history has ever seen, for historically each generation of lawbreakers is far worse then the preceding generation."Young males are much more likely to commit crimes than anyone else," Thomas says. "Violent crimes still shock and bother people."Many experts agree that unless drastic action is taken soon, we, as Americans, are doomed to live out our days as a society encased in violence.The media is partly responsible, although not entirely to blame, for our collective acceptance of violence. In the past, Mahoney says, violence in the movies and on TV usually occurred as good triumphing over evil. Now movies such as the Terminator series glorify revenge as a problem solving mechanism. "In the past, the general idea of violence [on film and in television] was that you were protecting someone or defending your life," Mahoney says. "Now violence is portrayed as an answer to things. "In addition, the media throughout America history has helped to shape our perception of criminals and criminal behavior. To this end, we have become seemingly undisturbed to the influence of brutality, creating heroes out of cold-blooded killers such as Jesse James, John Gotti and O.J. Simpson. We cheer the pirates of the past and toast the gangsters of Chicago. We buy artwork from serial killers and make movies that glorify criminal behavior.At the same time, the instantaneous transmission of news constantly bombards us with violent images, making us numbed to what we see in front of us. Americans are drawn to events like the lottery shooting like moths to a flame. We eat dinner watching scenes of Ott Brown's body being examined by the coroner or of airplanes bombarding Iraq.For some, the solution lies within the moral framework of our social contract with one another. For the most part, people become violent because there is no moral fiber on which to cling, no support system on which they can depend."The absence of a support system is a powerful factor," Mahoney says. "Religion is one of the areas which is an important factor. Religious people are very predictable and are much more likely to live up to their beliefs."Moreover, technology has made it is easier to kill today than, say, 100 years ago. It is both physically and emotionally harder to murder someone with your bare hands or a knife than from 100 of yards away with a semi-automatic weapon. While experts argue about the social causes of violence and how to combat them, at its core violence is about not getting along with one another.Perhaps the key to solving our crime problem is first admitting we have a problem and coming to grips with our nation's historic legacy of solving situations at the point of a gun. In the past we have put up with this lawlessness, preferring instead to adapt to rising crime rates rather than make greater sacrifices to reduce them.Author and attorney Andrew Thomas says most people believe that the crime rate can be rolled back merely by hiring more marshals and constructing more jails. Others believe crime to be "essentially a disease that certain individuals contract from society."For the most part, we live isolated lives where self-interest takes precedence over love and the common good. Simply put, Americans cannot stand living together. We all must make significant changes in our collective soul and culture to curb crime."The bottom of line to all of this is we need to treat each other differently," says UConn's Borrero.History, however, is against us.