Seventeen-year-old Tito lived in Miami, a good guy except that sometimes he had a big mouth. At a basketball game one evening he got angry over a foul call and swore at another player. Then he threw a punch. The other boy rushed to his car, grabbed his gun, and pumped bullets until Tito lay dead on the ground. Tito’s murderer was a quiet, well-thought-of honor student who was planning to go to college in a few months.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls violence a public health epidemic that kills 1 million people each year. But it’s not an epidemic to be cured in laboratories or government offices. Young people have a stake in finding solutions of their own, since they are the greatest victims of violence in this country. They are raped, robbed, and assaulted at a rate five times greater than adults, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Gunshot wounds are the number-one killer of teenage boys, says former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
One of those boys was 14-year-old Tyjuan, shot while sitting in a car. Another was Cidney, 13, caught in the crossfire of a gang battle in the hallway of a housing development. And on and on.
Digging the Roots – One Theory
In nature we take violence for granted as the law of the jungle, but now it’s in our towns and cities, and we are not so complacent. That’s why scientists are so interested in finding out if Tiger salamanders can help uncover the roots of violence.
The Tiger Grand Canyon salamander generally swims peacefully in small pools of water, content to live and let live. But when drought dries up water and food supplies, genetic changes turn the gentle creature into a killer. Its head and mouth grow larger and a new set of cannibal teeth replaces the normal ones. The salamander now can attack and gobble up other salamanders. Once enough salamanders have been eaten so that there is food and space for all, the head shrinks, the teeth fall out, and the salamander reverts back to its peaceful self.
Some scientists suggest that something similar happens to humans. An abusive home or a violent neighborhood may actually alter a person’s brain chemistry.
A Delicate Balance
Most people are born with a balance of brain chemicals that enables them to behave reasonably. Two chemicals are especially important: Serotonin, the feel-good hormone, regulates emotions and keeps aggression in check. When a person feels threatened, noradrenaline, the alarm hormone, stimulates chemicals to help the body fight the threat or flee. High levels of noradrenaline may mean more impulsive, violent behavior.
Certain stressors, such as poverty, abuse, or alcohol, may have an effect on the serotonin and noradrenaline levels – decreasing serotonin and increasing noradrenaline. This less desirable balance may become part of a person’s genetic make-up, and the person may show increased sensitivity to stress, even when the environment becomes more friendly. The more stress factors present in a person’s life, the greeter the tendency may be to violence.
A variation of this biological theory is that a person may be born with a defect in a gene that makes him or her more prone to violence. When someone with the defective gene encounters stressors, violence may erupt.
So just lower noradrenaline levels, right? Not quite. People with low noradrenaline levels need a lot of outside stimulation in order to feel alive. So they may take risks to get thrills. These may be the cold-blooded serial killers who murder for the challenge.
Scientists are looking for psychoactive medications that will restore the serotonin/noradrenaline balance. Another approach is gene therapy to repair the damaged genes that interfere with serotonin production.
In an abusive home, a child’s serotonin tends to decrease and noradrenaline to increase. The noradrenaline warns the child when there’s danger and gives the sudden spurt of energy needed to get out of the way. This increases chances of surviving in a hostile environment. The problem is that with too much noradrenaline, people may act without thinking. A small stress may be perceived as a major threat, and the person retaliates.
Fighting Back in the Schools
“You bump someone by accident, and they think you did it on purpose,” says Kara, a 15-year-old sophomore. “They either shove you back, or they threaten to get you later. And if a gang member thinks you’ve insulted him, he’ll come after you with a gun.”
If that sounds extreme, consider this: 20 percent of suburban high school students in a Tulane University study said if someone steals something from you it is all right to shoot that person.
Every day an estimated 270,000 guns are brought to schools. Every day 40 students are killed or injured by guns. And, according to an NEA report on school safety, every day 160,000 students miss classes because they are afraid to go to school. A recent CDC report shows the murder rate for teenage boys age 15 to 19 jumped 154 percent between 1985 and 1991 – a leap mostly attributable to guns.
Schools are starting all kinds of programs to bring back safety: no gang colors, no gang hats or jackets, zero-tolerance for fighting. Some public schools require students to wear uniforms – down to the shoelaces that must be all black so gangs can’t use colored laces as symbols. Some schools have drive-by shooting drills in addition to fire drills, and others greet students at the door with metal detectors.
There are conflict resolution programs centering around the idea that it’s OK to disagree, but that young people need to learn how. When upset, the first reaction of many students is to attack. They think it’s wimpy to ignore an insult, and if they do something wrong, they never consider a simple “i’m sorry.” (See “Conflict Resolution,” page 9.)
What’s a Life Worth?
Many experts say that human life seems to have less value than it used to. Maybe that’s because so many young people believe they won’t make it very far into adulthood. “I’ll never see 25,” says a 17-year-old in a gang-ridden school. With that view of the world, it’s hard to plan for the future. Why not steal, do drugs, or join a gang?
Jorge was 15 when he joined a gang to have protection if he got hassled. He felt cool walking down the street with fellow gang members. He even liked the rush of fear when they robbed someone or confronted a rival gang member. Then he noticed that he was being hassled more than before. When a buddy was killed in a drive-by shooting, he decided it wasn’t worth it.
“I’m still alive.”
“I’d probably be dead now if the coach hadn’t asked me to do this boot camp program,” says Jorge. “It was my life, so I said ‘yeah.’ I was there the whole summer, and since I’ve come back I’ve made myself invisible. I don’t give anyone any trouble. School, basketball, home, and that’s it. Sometimes it’s boring. But I’m still alive.”
Jorge joined a gang to find a family. Twelve-year-old Lana joined to get away from hers. After an especially bad fight with her mother, she ran away from her comfortable suburban home to live in a run-down apartment in the city. “There were bugs everywhere and six people living in four rooms, but I felt like I was in charge of my own life for the first time. My boyfriend J.J. was in a gang, and that made it even more exciting. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t just a kid, so I said OK when he told me to have sex with two other guys in the gang.
“Then he told me we were going across the state line to meet more gang members. But we never went because the police found me first. I went to a psychiatric hospital where they helped me and my parents learn to talk about our feelings. I did really great at school the next year and even won an award for the most improved student. My parents still bug me, but at least they care.
“Some friends told me my old gang is going to come after me. The youth officer at the police department is helping me, and I try to take one day at a time. But I know how gang members think, and I’m scared.”
Violence at home is perhaps even harder to cope with than in school or on the streets. It’s the one place that should be safe. If there’s violence and abuse, children learn they can’t trust their parents or themselves or the rest of the world. They grow up angry, and that anger lies beneath the surface, ready to explode at any moment.
Henry doesn’t remember a time when he felt safe. His parents didn’t abuse him directly, but his father beat his mother almost every day. He hated his father’s behavior and hated himself for not being able to protect his mother.
As the months and years passed, Henry had a hard time getting along with others. If a friend didn’t do what Henry wanted, he’d get furious and beat him up. And he didn’t hold back the way most kids do; he really wanted to hurt someone. He had identified with his father (that’s where the power was). Experts say that aggressive behavior becomes a habit until the person develops the ability to settle differences in calmer ways.
As many as 4 million wives are beaten by husbands each year; that’s one every 15 seconds. Wives abuse husbands, too, but in far lower numbers. Like physical and sexual child abuse, domestic violence goes on in poor homes and wealthy ones, and in every racial and ethnic group.
What Are the Causes?
What triggers violence?
* Poverty. James Garbarino of Chicago’s Erikson Institute says that kids in poor neighborhoods have symptoms like kids in war-torn countries: post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional numbness, depression, anxiety, and rage. Years ago, two black psychiatrists coined the phrase “black rage” to describe how many African-Americans feel about being poor, undereducated, and the object of racism.
* Job stress. Murder is the second leading cause of death in the workplace. In Colorado a man killed five people in a pizza restaurant because he’d been fired.
* Alcohol and other drug abuse. The arrival of crack cocaine in the ’80s brought the growth of gangs. Gangs kill rivals for drug turf; bystanders get caught in the crossfire. Drug abusers kill while high or during a robbery to get drug money.
* Teenage parents. Young people with little experience and education are most likely to live in poverty.
* Fatherless homes. Psychologists say fathers are needed as role models and as authority figures who control children’s behavior. Admitted killer “Monster” showed emotion only once as he spoke to “60 Minutes”: His lips trembled and tears were in his eyes as he spoke of his father, who has never showed him a moment’s interest.
* Lack of supervision. In even the most caring families, children of working parents have lots of time on their own. Better day care and after-school programs are needed.
* Breakdown of community. There is an African saying that it takes an entire village to raise a child. But there’s been a breakdown in our “villages.” Neighbors no longer watch out for one another. Some people call for more prisons to teach about right and wrong, but others say prisons just teach antisocial values.
* Guns. According to government figures, private citizens own as many as 3 million assault weapons. “Anyone can get a .45 magnum for less than $100,” says one high school sophomore. Citizens’ groups are demanding tighter gun control laws; on the other hand, the National Rifle Association says the constitution protects the right of citizens to bear arms.
Message from the Media
Some experts say our society permits oven encourages – violence. Movies, TV, and newspapers are filled with it. Myriam Miedzian, author of Boys Will Be Boys, says kids get the message that violence is fun.
Violence in sports is encouraged, too. Fights on the field are common, and some fans seem more interested in players beating each other up than in their scoring goals.
Others cite “gangsta rap” with its images of person-to-person crime as an invitation to violence. There are songs about killing cops and sexually abusing women. Some say rap reflects the anger of young blacks, but others point out that the largest segment of the rap audience is white.
Violence is not a black problem or a white problem, or Asian or Native American. To fight the problem, we must all get serious about valuing human life and devaluing firearms. Then we can push the law of the jungle back where it belongs, and return peace and safety to our streets.