The Contagion of Violence

Long cover article titled Blocking the Transmission of Violence by Alex Kotlowitz (author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, 1992) in the NYT Magazine today about CeaseFire, a group of mostly ex-cons working in Chicago and a few other cities to contain the contagion of violence. The key point: violence is contagious, like an infectious disease:

“THE STUBBORN CORE of violence in American cities is troubling and perplexing. Even as homicide rates have declined across the country — in some places, like New York, by a remarkable amount — gunplay continues to plague economically struggling minority communities. For 25 years, murder has been the leading cause of death among African-American men between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has analyzed data up to 2005. And the past few years have seen an uptick in homicides in many cities. Since 2004, for instance, they are up 19 percent in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, 29 percent in Houston and 54 percent in Oakland.

“The traditional response has been more focused policing and longer prison sentences, but law enforcement does little to disrupt a street code that allows, if not encourages, the settling of squabbles with deadly force.

“CeaseFire tries to deal with these quarrels on the front end.” ‘Violence interrupters “suss out smoldering disputes and to intervene before matters get out of hand. … [It] doesn’t necessarily aim to get people out of gangs — nor interrupt the drug trade. It’s almost blindly focused on one thing: preventing shootings.

CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist and a physician who for 10 years battled infectious diseases in Africa. He says that violence directly mimics infections like tuberculosis and AIDS, and so, he suggests, the treatment ought to mimic the regimen applied to these diseases: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source.

“‘For violence, we’re trying to interrupt the next event, the next transmission, the next violent activity,’ Slutkin told me recently. ‘And the violent activity predicts the next violent activity like H.I.V. predicts the next H.I.V. and TB predicts the next TB.’ Slutkin wants to shift how we think about violence from a moral issue (good and bad people) to a public health one (healthful and unhealthful behavior).

About violence and murder, Slutkin is convinced that “longer sentences and more police officers had made little difference. ‘Punishment doesn’t drive behavior,’ he told me. ‘Copying and modeling and the social expectations of your peers is what drives your behavior.'”

The interruptors, Slutkin says, “have to deal with how to get someone to save face. In other words, how do you not do a shooting if someone has insulted you, if all of your friends are expecting you to do that? … In fact, what our interrupters do is put social pressure in the other direction.”

About this contagion of violence, and its cure, Girardians have a lot to say:

** Rene Girard, in “Are the Gospels Mythical?” talks about the contagion with reference to Peter’s denial of Jesus:

“Peter spectacularly illustrates this mimetic contagion. When surrounded by people hostile to Jesus, he imitates their hostility. He obeys the same mimetic force, ultimately, as Pilate and Herod. Even the thieves crucified with Jesus obey that force and feel compelled to join the crowd. And yet, I think, the Gospels do not seek to stigmatize Peter, or the thieves, or the crowd as a whole, or the Jews as a people, but to reveal the enormous power of mimetic contagion — a revelation valid for the entire chain of murders stretching from the Passion back to ‘the foundation of the world.'”

** James Alison, in a 2007 lecture entitled “Love Your Enemy: Within a Divided Self,” talks about Jesus’s command in Matthew 5, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”:

“The instruction is not one about being a doormat, it is one about how to be free. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ means ‘do not be towards them as they are towards you, for then you will be run by them, and you and they will become ever more functions of each other, grinding each other down towards destruction. … Instead of that, allow your identity to be given to you by your Father who is in heaven, who is not in any sort of reciprocity with them, and is able to be towards them as one holding them in being and loving them, without reacting against them.'”

Alison says that to change the pattern of our desires so wholly requires prayer, a recognition of our similarity with our enemies; this will “‘eventually empower you to be towards your enemy as God is. Thus you will be free of any contagion from their violence towards you’.”

Alison also speaks, in Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the underside (2006), of the Holy Spirit’s power to operate “neither from fear, nor from necessity, nor from togetherness, nor from contagion, nor from hate, nor from vengeance, nor from survival, nor from any other of the structuring forces of our society. And so it enables the person who is moved by it and recreated by it to begin to swim spaciously in the midst of violence without that violence infecting them.

** Drasko Dizdar, citing both Girard and Alison in his paper “Leaving the Temple” in the Australian EJournal of Theology (2004), says:

“Humanity is, indeed, so easily misled — and not least by those who ‘come in my name, saying: I am! – leading many astray’ (Mark 13:6). The contagion of violence, working through fear, anxiety, indignation, anger, resentment, vengeance, etc, infects all who are not immunised against it: ‘But when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be terrorised (throeisthe); this must happen, but the end is not yet’ (Mark 13:7). Maintaining peaceful balance in a storm of contagious violence is Christ’s gift….”

** G. B. Caird (in Richard B. Hays, chapter “Revelation” in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, quoted here) explains the contagion, expressed in the book of Revelation, this way:

Evil is self-propagating. Like the Hydra, the many-headed monster can grow another head when one has been cut off. When one man wrongs another, the other may retaliate, bear a grudge, or take his injury out on a third person. Whichever he does, there are now two evils where before there was one; and a chain reaction is started, like the spreading of a contagion. Only if the victim absorbs the wrong and so puts it out of currency, can it be prevented from going any further.”

The work of CeaseFire seems to be to convince the victims to imitate another model, to absorb the disease, to keep each other from reacting against ‘the enemy,’ and thus to keep the violent contagion from spreading and eventually to free the community from the disease.

Read the article for more details about the violence interruptors, why they turn from violent perpetrators to interruptors, how they operate (e.g., they “respond to every shooting and stabbing victim taken to the hospital”), founder Slutkin’s background, the impact of CeaseFire on communities, its struggles for funding, etc.


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