Needed: a New Approach to US Violence

Violence in America is not new. Nor is it an aberration. From the revolution that founded our country to "Beavis and Butt-Head," violence is as American as apple pie.

Still, many Americans feel strongly that somehow violence is not the same thing it has always been. It has taken a new place in our daily lives. Some people point to the fact that children are bringing guns and and knives to school; others cite the proliferation of violence on television and in the movies.

There is, I think, another important difference in what violence is today and in how we are experiencing it.

Historically, violence arose in the context of an America that was growing, prospering, progressing, and developing - economically, politically, and culturally. Consequently, violence generally occurred in the context of an overall constructive thrust to American life.

That is no longer the case. This is not to suggest that the violence of times gone by can be justified as having served a purpose. Violence was, and is, brutal and destructive. In a world that has in some respects all but stopped developing, however, violence takes on a different significance - in the lives of individuals and in the life of America itself.

This is particularly true of poor inner-city communities where, with economic and social development at a standstill, violence is often all that is happening.

Decades of liberal failure have shown us that you can't just "stop the violence" by throwing more tax dollars into the pot. Similarly, the evidence suggests that even the harshest "tough on crime" legislation has had little impact. According to "The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission," for example, "academic research has shown little or no correlation between rates of crime and the number of people in prison."

Traditional solutions to violence, whether liberal or conservative, have simply not been effective.

The Senate is scheduled to take action soon on The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act of 1997, part of a package of proposed juvenile justice legislation. The debate, which is taking place along the old political fault line, ignores the historical changes in American violence.

Violence is the bad news. The good news is a new kind of development. Innovative programs - independent of government funding and politicking - are making use of cutting-edge research in human development to reinitiate the constructive development of tens of thousands of inner-city youngsters in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods. These same neighborhoods recently have witnessed an unprecedented downturn in crime and violence.

While the professional politicians continue to invoke traditional solutions to mobilize the shrinking pool of voters who keep them in office, these independent programs are developing the lives of young people and the future of America.

* Gabrielle Kurlander is president of the nonprofit Community Literacy Research Project Inc., which sponsors the All-Stars Talent Show Network, a New York City antiviolence program for youth.

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