'Symposium' on violence in US; Experts give opinions on why events such as recent assassination attempt erupt in usually forebearing culture
Washington — There is no "general theory" of the causes and nature of violence in American society, according to sociologists and political scientists interviewed by the Monitor a week after the shooting of President Reagan.
While readily acknowledging the tentative nature of their views, these experts did agree on certain points, including the following:
* That there has been no sudden overall increase in violence in the United States.
* That violence has been more consistently a part of American culture than has been acknowledged until recently.
* That the forms of violence tend to change with time --from individual actions to class or group conflicts over issues like labor organizing and war protests.
* Against the countertrait in the nation's culture of generosity and forbearance, violence surprises and disappoints the public when it surfaces.
"Traditional American generosity -- which is still stronger than in most of the world -- is taking a beating," says Harvard sociologist David Riesman.
"I've watched a rise in violence since the 1950s," he says. "By historical standards, the violence is not greater. But it is changing. It's a result of people feeling crowded by inflation, crowded by racial and ethnic issues.
"It's a general impatience, a surliness. I see it in the way people drive, taking frightful chances.
"There's always been a great deal of violence. But there was hope there would be less of it. There was more peer disapproval of violence. The great difference between 25 years ago and now is the lack of conviction of authorities or peers that it can be stopped."
Mr. Riesman and others say there is an undercurrent of violence, reported in bits and pieces, in most parts of the nation as new class, ethnic, and other conflicts emerge.
Clashes between Southeast Asian refugees and residents of communities into which they have moved, conflict between recreationists on off-road vehicles and environmentalists or landowners, violent encounters on the highways --these are recent examples.
The violence in some cases is not unlike the earlier melting-pot hostilities as waves of Irish, Italian, Polish, and Chinese immigrants fought for their place or were routed, the experts say.
"There is no more violence in society than before," says Northwestern University Prof. William J. Crotty, a former member of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. "But we're more conscious of it. And our toleration for violence is decreasing."
He believes violence in America had been "blocked out" of public attention until the Kennedy and other assassinations, the Vietnam war, and other traumas of the 1960s. Since then, Professor Crotty says, the tendency has been to make "American violence" a catchall, a cliche for disruptions at home.
Political or ideological violence, as measured by the political kidnappings and assassinations of other countries, is not high in the United States, most experts agree. However, they believe a vague sense of political disturbance or fear that is increasingly evident in the US.
"There is an agitation, primarily coming from the right, about the tremendous changes the society is undergoing and the amount of violence that is being perpetrated on it," says Michael Rogin, a political scientist at the University of California-Berkeley.
Apparently isolated recent attacks on Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities as "outsiders" may be linked to a wider sense of being under siege.
"There is a general xenophobia, due to the Iranian events, the economy, and the feeling America has lost stature in the world," says John Shattuck, Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's not clear what the common enemy is. I'm not sure there is one. It's not like World War II, when there was a common goal. Now there is a multiplicity of frustrations that get taken out in some of the positions of the Moral Majority and those calling for the imposition of strict moral principles through law."
Sociologist Riesman finds resort to civil disobedience in the US in recent years partly at fault in building the level of violence.
"Approving civil disobedience, given this country's record of vigilantism and lawlessness on the frontier, is unwise," Riesman says. He favors nonviolent demonstrations, not civil disobedience, except as a last resort. Civil disobedience has "been used by everybody from farmers who don't feel they get enough money, to coal miners and political groups," he says.
The American theme of individualism -- dominant again with the Republican election victory, but persistent since the founding of the republic -- also is linked to the past and present record of American violence, some scholars argue.
"Turning the individual loose to do what he wants in all areas -- many of them very good and worthy -- emphasizing individual assertiveness, this assertiveness will crop up in other areas," says University of Connecticut political scientist Everett Ladd. "You see it in gun ownership: Don't get in the way of the individual collecting seven pistols if he wants them. It may manifest itself, however, in violent behavior, but it's more than that."
Individualism, not violence, is the broader theme, Mr. Ladd contends: "If you get enough individualism and you mix it with a few psychotic individuals and the reckless proliferation of handguns, you don't have too much trouble accounting for the assassination experience we've had."
But Ladd also points out that, viewed in the context of America's continuous assimilation, from the start, of large numbers of people from different cultural traditions -- a situation unmatched anywhere else in the world -- recent and past violence look more modest.