It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I was relaxing with my friends on Hippie Hill. I laid out my blanket and began to enjoy the weekly drum circle and watch the hula hoop dancers.
Suddenly my attention was drawn to a commotion down the hill, where a middle-aged man, lying in the grass as though he just woke up from a nap, was being repeatedly kicked and punched by a young man. The young man appeared to be unprovoked. Perhaps the most sickening part of this disturbing scene was the slow, non-chalant way in which the young man was punching and kicking him in the stomach and face.
Other people on the lawn seemed frozen in shock. Then the young man was joined by a gang of ten other adolescents, and they sauntered up the hill, disappearing into the trees. As soon as it had started, it was over.
In one of the most peaceful places in the city, where people of all walks of life come to bask in the sun, this act of violence seemed completely out of place. A few people came to the man’s assistance, now standing up but stumbling around dazed, but after he rode his bike out of the park it is as if nothing happened. Except for the two police cars that drove up the hill about ten minutes later and a few sunbathers who reported the incident, there was no reaction. It was simply another happening, along with the drummers and the handmade jewelry vendors and the boys throwing the Frisbee around. It felt like this could happen to anyone at any time.
This is not an isolated incident. Violence is everywhere, and I am not referring to music, movies and video games. Violent acts are committed against all types of people, all the time, all over the place. In a country that was founded on violence, where guns and war have been part of our identity from the beginning, it should come as no surprise that personal brutality continues to permeate the culture. We become desensitized to it as a reflex form of self-protection, and this causes a feeling of normalcy.
With a few exceptions in the world where intense fighting has broken out and a culture of violence has built up (think Israel, Colombia, Iraq), the vast majority of the world has astoundingly lower rates of youth violence than the United States. U.S. citizens consider the second amendment a necessary freedom, but it has gotten to the point where we sacrifice lives every day for this alleged freedom.
According to Howard Pinderhughes, who gave a lecture this week about violence prevention in San Francisco, the root causes of violent behavior are poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, and oppression. So perhaps the answer to decreasing hostility and aggression is to educate and empower our citizens. However, prevention is a tricky issue because American society wants to extract the criminal from the situation and plunk him in jail instead of listening to why he did what he did and try to change the cause.
Two primary causes of violent behavior are environmental factors (access to weapons and alcohol, family life, and abuse) and individual factors (perceived opportunity, personal motivation and attachment to school and achievement). When these social organizations break down their norms no longer keep people in check, which results in a lack of social control.
Our policies regarding violence are based on the perception that violence in the U.S. is a result of “bad kids making bad decisions,” Pinderhughes said. What we need to do is go back to the environment where these aggressive, hostile ideas are formed and fix the broken communities, the social organizations that do not serve those they were constructed to support. We need normalize the problem, making it the community’s responsibility. Only then will there be hope of repairing it.