The high incidence of violence in the United States is of great concern to citizens, lawmakers, and law enforcement agencies alike. Between 1960 and 1991, violent crime in the U.S. rose over 370 percent, and over 600,000 Americans are victimized by handgun crimes annually.
Violent acts committed by juveniles are of particular concern: the number of American adolescents arrested for homicide has increased by 85 percent between 1987 and 1991, and more juveniles are committing serious crimes at younger ages than ever before. Young African American males are particularly at risk for becoming either perpetrators or victims of violent crime.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified homicide as the leading cause of death for this demographic group, estimating that one in every 28 black males born in 1987 is likely to be murdered. For white males born in 1987, the ratio is one in 205.
The threat of violence is particularly disturbing because of new variants—including carjackings, drive-by shootings, and workplace killings—that threaten Americans in places or situations formerly considered safe. The CDC has declared workplace violence an epidemic, with the number of homicides in the workplace tripling in the last ten years.
Workplace violence may be divided into two types: external and internal. External workplace violence is committed by persons unfamiliar with the employer and employees, occurring at random or as an attempt at making a symbolic statement to society at large.
Internal workplace violence is generally committed by an individual involved in either a troubled spousal or personal relationship with a coworker, or as an attempt to seek revenge against an employer, usually for being released from employment.
The rising percentage of layoffs, downsizing, and impersonal management styles in many American corporations have been linked to the increase in workplace violence, nearly one-fourth of which end in the perpetrator’s suicide.
One type of violence that has received increased attention in recent years is domestic violence, a crime for which statistics are difficult to compile because it is so heavily underreported—only about one in 270 incidents are thought to be reported to authorities. Estimates of the percentage of women who have been physically abused by a spouse or partner range from 20 percent to as high as 50 percent.
According to the FBI, a woman is beaten every 18 seconds in the United States, and almost onethird of American females murdered in 1992 were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Battering is experienced by women of all ages, races, ethnic groups, and social classes.
A chronic pattern of ongoing physical violence and verbal abuse may produce a variant of post-traumatic stress disorder referred to as Battered Woman Syndrome, in which the victim experiences depression, guilt, passivity, fear, and low self-esteem.
Various explanations have been offered for the high prevalence of violence in the United States, which is by far the most violent nation in the industrialized world. Among the most prominent has been the argument that violence depicted in the mass media—including television, movies, rock and rap music videos, and video games—have contributed to the rise in violence in society.
Quantitative studies have found that prime time television programs average 10 violent acts per hour, while children’s cartoons average 32 acts of violence per hour. On-screen deaths in feature films such as Robocop and Die Hard range from 80 to 264.
It has also been argued that experiencing violence vicariously in these forms is not a significant determinant of violent behavior and that it may even have a beneficial cathartic effect. However, experimental studies have found correlations between the viewing of violence and increased interpersonal aggression, both in childhood and, later, in adolescence.
Viewing violence can elicit aggressive behavior through modeling, increasing the viewer’s arousal, desensitizing viewers to violence, reducing restraints on aggressive behavior, and distorting views about conflict resolution.
Other causal factors that have been linked to violence include the prevalence of gangs, the introduction of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, the increase in singleparent families, and the lack of tighter restrictions on gun ownership.
In addition, scientists have found a possible link between violence and heredity: studies have shown that males born with an extra Y chromosome (type XYY) are more likely than normal to be inmates of prisons or mental hospitals.
The significance of these findings has been disputed, however, as XYY males in the general population are not more violent than other males. The effects of a genetic predisposition are also tempered by interaction with a variety of environmental factors. Of the men who are genetically predisposed to violence, only a minority will actually commit acts of aggression.
There are a number of more credible predictors of individual violence, most of them psychological. The most reliable indicator is a history of violence: each time a person commits a violent act, the probability that he or she will commit more violent acts increases. Psychoses, including schizophrenia, major affective disorders, and paranoid states are also closely linked to violence, as is erotomania, or romantic obsession.
This condition involves an idealized romantic love (often for someone, such as a celebrity, with whom one has no personal relationship) that becomes a fixation. Such actions as unsolicited letters and phone calls, and stalking eventually lead to violence, either out of revenge for being rejected or so that the object of the fixation may not become involved with anyone else.
Depression is also associated with violence, often in the form of suicide. Two personality disorders related to violence—particularly in the workplace—are antisocial personality disorder (“sociopaths”) and borderline personality disorder (characterized by instability and lack of boundaries in interpersonal relationships).
Chemical dependence can lead to violence by interfering with the ability to distinguish right from wrong, removing social inhibitions, and inducing paranoia and/or aggression. Other possible indicators of violence include neurological impairment, an excessive interest in weapons, a high level of frustration with one’s environment, and the pathological blaming of others for one’s problems.
In recent years, a public health approach to violence has been widely advocated. This orientation stresses outreach to those segments of the population among whom violence is most prevalent in an attempt to alter attitudes and behaviors that contribute to it, and to teach the skills necessary for the nonviolent resolution of conflicts.
Teenagers, in particular, as well as their parents, are targeted in these efforts, especially in areas with high crime rates. This approach has been criticized by those who believe that violence should be dealt with by addressing its underlying structural causes—including poverty, racial discrimination, and unemployment—through direct socioeconomic intervention.