The Breakfast Table

Is America More Violent Than Medieval Europe?


I debated the media violence theory on a panel at the Freedom Forum in New York a couple of weeks ago, as you know, pointing out the abysmal quality of the studies that supposedly show a correlation between viewing so-called violent media and “aggressive” behavior, whatever that is. One of the most often cited studies (it was cited in the legislation that led to the V-chip, for example) supposedly found a correlation between “violent” TV viewing at age 8 and criminal violence at age 30; but the correlation turned out to be based on a sample size of exactly three boys, a number that the researchers had carefully not published across 20 years of papers (but made the mistake of telling me in response to a direct question).

That’s another whole subject by itself; the reason I mention it here is that I was surprised by the general conviction, in the New York audience for the panel, that violence is increasing in America and that violence levels are higher today than they were in the past. To the contrary, looking at homicide rates, the rates in medieval and early modern Europe were five to 10 times as high as they are in modern America. We’re significantly higher than contemporary Europe and Japan (who watch American “violent” television shows, by the way)–a little above five per 100,000 in the United States today, compared to about one per 100,000 in Europe and Japan–but we still live in the most peaceful era in the history of the West, at least where private violence is concerned. Indeed, there’s so little criminal violence in America compared to the historic past that people, looking around for some explanation for school shootings, etc., see the Three Stooges bopping each other on TV and think that must be the explanation.

But I’ve looked carefully at what is known about the backgrounds of every one of the white schoolboy killers of the past five years, and in every case where there is information available, they were brutalized at home or by their peers or both, with the rest of violent socialization following. I thought Harris and Klebold, the Columbine killers, might have been an exception because everyone said their parents weren’t abusive. (But people often say that about parents whose use of violent domination meets cultural norms and therefore isn’t defined as abuse.) Then Harris and Klebold themselves cleared up the mystery from beyond the grave: In their last videotape, which was reported in Time magazine a year or so after the massacre, Harris spoke of being kicked around on the military bases where he grew up (his father was an Air Force officer), and Klebold spoke of being kicked around by his jock older brother and his brother’s jock friends. All three later stages of the violent socialization process are readily apparent in their known behavior: being bullied at school and responding by withdrawing into a goth group (belligerency); beginning to fight back, taking up weapons, brandishing those weapons in disputes, picking fights, pushing people around (violent performances); with the Columbine massacre itself corresponding to virulency, i.e., as you say, “expanding the violence to include offensive domination.”

Yesterday I mentioned a prevention program embodied in a Vermont system of community parent-child centers. These derive from a pilot project organized in one county, Addison, which began voluntarily two decades ago and proved itself and gained private and state support. It offers area families services such as educational classes, support groups, child care, playgroups, and recreation, as well as home visiting (proven to reduce child abuse in a study done by Henry Kempe’s colleagues, he being the physician who identified and named the “battered child syndrome”) and school outreach. It served as a focal point for coordinating the activities of state and local agencies concerned with children and family services. Teen-age pregnancy rates in Addison County fell from 70 per 1,000 to 45 per 1,000 in the first seven years of the center’s operation. Infant mortality was reduced across the same period by 50 percent. Incidents of child abuse declined from 21 percent to 2 percent. That’s why Vermont decided to fund similar centers in every county in the state.

I see the Fraymers have already begun debating violent socialization. I think I’ll stop here and lob this into the compound.