Violence and Choice

AMERICANS are contemplating with renewed anguish the violence in society.

Even while statistics point to a slight decrease over the past two years in the rate of violent crime, rising murder rates in major cities and a spate of random shootings have jarred the public. More and more people are rushing to buy weapons to protect themselves. The number of guns in circulation in the United States, which has doubled since 1972, now almost equals the number of citizens.

Scenes of trouble have moved from late-night streets into schools, workplaces, homes - and any place en route.

So many youngsters are being attacked on their way to or from school, or in the classroom that some now talk matter-of-factly of planning their own funerals. Others speak blithely of their readiness to shoot anyone who insults them. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, juvenile arrests for murder, robbery, and assault rose by 50 percent between 1988 and 1992.

At the same time, reported incidents of domestic violence, mostly against women, have surged; more American lives are being lost to such violence every five years than in the entire Vietnam war. And random killings - whether of foreign tourists in Florida, of subway riders, or of patrons in fast-food restaurants - have stunned with their irrationality.

Crime and violence are the No. 1 issue in the minds of Americans. A crime bill to put more police on the streets and the Brady bill to regulate sale of hand guns are small steps - but not the most important ones.

Violence is learned behavior, sociologists and psychologists agree, and is most often learned at an early age. How children are treated and how they see others treated are fundamental factors. Underlying causes, researchers say, include physical abuse and harsh punishment; rejection or belittling of children; and discrimination - experiences that demean, leading to anger and loss of self-esteem.

But numerous studies also show that viewing violence - in movies, TV, video games - increases violence. It is now estimated that an average American has seen 200,000 violent acts by the age of 18.

Most disturbing of all are signs that violence has begun to be viewed as acceptable behavior. One school consultant in the Boston area has said she sees a dramatic change in children's acceptance of violence. ``It has almost become the norm,'' she says.

The message seems clear that a climate of trivialization of human life has seeped into popular culture and had its greatest effect on our children.

If the essence of moral values is choosing the good and constructive thought or act when another might suggest itself as easier or more satisfying, then these symptoms are a warning. In a country that considers itself religious and essentially moral - and promotes its values to the world - this warning urges self-examination.

What choices are being made on a daily basis in thought and conduct - for supporting and disciplining children, for selecting forms of play and entertainment, for resolving disputes? Condoning violence at sports events, renting brutal videos, and patronizing ultraviolent films are choices that have consequences. As Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Nazi death camp survivor, has said when asked about the West's inability to respond to Bosnia and other crises of deep import, ``We have failed to teach our children that man is not an animal.'' Yet the opportunity to make the right choice and help young people do the same is always present. The Monitor's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, has written: ``God has endowed man with inalienable rights, among which are self-government, reason, and conscience.''

Many avenues exist for countering the negative trend:

* Taking a public stand. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is conducting a ``stop the violence'' campaign among teenagers. Clarifying the difference between snitching on friends and standing for principle, he is calling on them to find the courage to report drug dealers and those who carry guns.

* Expanding conflict-resolution curricula in schools. Programs in school districts demonstrate that children can learn alternative methods of problem-solving that reduce violent behavior and develop social skills.

* Using TV to counter violence. The American Psychological Association recommends that the Federal Communications Commission make license renewal for broadcasters dependent in part on their providing programs that help counter violence.

* Pursuing gun control.

* Helping those with violent behavior and those vulnerable to violence. Some former prisoners or gang members have been able to break free of criminal behavior when they gain a sense of their own worth and a capacity to make their way in society. Some churches have begun programs to mentor or adopt young people at risk.

The way out of a culture of violence begins with daily choices -

in thought and act. No one is helpless to effect a change.

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