January has been a bad month for violence
January has been a bad month for violence. It started with the hideous Jan. 8 near-assassination in Tucson, Ariz., of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The rampage killed six people and wounded 13, including Giffords.
Closer to home, just a week ago, a man reacted to a traffic stop by shooting Lincoln City police officer Steven Dodds, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. The attack triggered an intense manhunt around Waldport for the man police identified as the suspect: Portland area resident David Durham.
“What is it with people?” everyone wonders when something like this happens. Two possible answers — usually linked in some way — spring to mind: extreme anger or psychosis.
And they’re probably not far off. Ten years ago, Jonathan Pincus — a well-known neurologist at Georgetown University and chief of neurology at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington, D.C. — wrote a book called “Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill.” In it he examined the components of violence.
Pincus concluded that the propensity to do violence involves a complex interaction of three factors: childhood neglect or abuse; psychiatric abnormality; and neurological damage.
Pincus describes, in such cases, an anger developing because of childhood influences, with psychiatric and neurological problems then inhibiting a normal person’s ability to control the urge to commit violence.
However, Pincus also stressed that even all three of those markers do not guarantee a violent personality. Most people with brain damage do not become violent, he said, nor do most people who were abused or neglected as children or who suffer from mental illness.
In Pincus’ view, it takes a peculiar combination of the three factors to trigger that level of violent temperament.
If that’s the case, there obviously are ways to prevent people from carrying out violent acts by removing one or more of the components of violence, including successful treatment of mental illness and control of the tendency toward unreasonable anger.
While diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders and mental illness are usually the province of the medical profession, anger is something that is a normal part of human emotion. The problem begins not because of anger itself, but because a person begins to use violence to act out angry emotions.
“Anger is an emotion like another other. It is a temporary state,” Eugene family therapist Debra Jackson said. “People who feel anger need to recognize it as temporary and then develop ways to express it that aren’t destructive. It’s a problem-solving skill, which may sound easy, but can be really hard to do.”
It’s important for couples, who make up the bulk of her clientele, to learn how to handle their own anger both as individuals and within their relationship, because children develop their own anger reactions based on what they see from the adults in their lives, Jackson said.
“It’s very important that children see their parents having a conflict and resolving it in a rational way.”
Of course, “There’s that whole other piece to anger, and that’s where the issue of criminality comes in,” she said. “There’s a lot of research going on that looks at sociopathy and psycopathy. For example, there is evidence that a ‘warrior gene’ may exist, which results in poor impulse control and poor decision-making. The question is, what turns on that gene.”
The answer may go back to the combination theory of the Pincus research, which included decades worth of interviews with 150 murderers — among them serial killer Ted Bundy and Kip Kinkel, the Thurston High School student who killed his parents, then shot and killed two fellow students at the high school and wounded another dozen.
Another study, conducted in Oregon and California by the RAND Corporation, found that the greatest predictors for seventh-grade boys to become violent by the end of high school included poor grades, frequent moves during elementary school, early signs of anti-social behavior, offers of drugs and overall prevalence of drug use at school.
Predictors for girls were similar except that frequent moves and drug offers did not figure as predictors, while low self-esteem and living in poor neighborhoods did.
The implication there, as concluded by the RAND researchers offers the hope to “target interventions to the adolescents who are most at risk, thereby creating more effective violence prevention programs.”
In other words, the “It takes a village to raise a child” mantra — coordination of the family, school and community — may be key in helping preteens and adolescents turn away from future violence as teenagers or adults.