Putting a lid on alcohol could help reduce violent crime
A pattern is emerging - an alarming one. It suggests that alcohol plays an important role in crimes of violence, including rape. Although many experts veer away from defining a causal relationship, estimates from a sampling of scholars and social workers contacted by the Monitor indicate that liquor is indeed a factor in 50 to 90 percent of cases involving abuse of a spouse, molestation of a child, or rape.
In the recent rape trial in New Bedford, Mass., which received national attention, discussion of this influence surfaced. But eventually it got lost in the controversy over the reputation of the victim, the propriety of media coverage, the severity of punishment, and the community's reaction. Both the perpetrators and the victim in the New Bedford case, however, were reported to have been drinking; some, or all, of them may have been drunk at the time of the attack.
Alcohol also played a role in another story about violence recently in the headlines. A woman testifying in behalf of a controversial antipornography ordinance in Minneapolis said that in two separate attacks on her, alcohol, as well as pornography, was definitely a factor.
There is still much to be learned about the link between violence and drunkenness. The question needs more thorough study if American society is really to understand the problem of violence and perhaps to reduce its incidence. But even without hard figures on the relationship, some things seem clear:
* The link between alcohol and violence or antisocial behavior may be stronger than suspected.
* Liquor tends to drown inhibitions. It can cause people to do things they would not ordinarily do, block out their moral compunctions.
Social scientists, medical practitioners, women's advocates, and people who deal with offenders and victims in family violence and rape situations stress that alcohol should not be used as an ''excuse'' for antisocial actions. Too often courts and the public tend to accept drinking as a valid defense for violent behavior, explains Murray A. Strauscq, who heads the Family Violence Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. ''Being drunk excuses otherwise inexcusable behavior,'' he explains. ''But that doesn't make it right.''
Keith Sofka, a counselor at RAVEN (Rape and Violence End Now), a St. Louis-based self-help group for male offenders, also affirms a relationship between alcohol and violence. RAVEN tries to teach men how to control the emotions that trigger explosions into physical violence. RAVEN, however, first refers the men who also have an alcohol problem to other programs that will help them ''dry out.'' ''Alcohol blurs what they learn here,'' Mr. Sofka explains. It ''takes over.''
Louise Melling of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., is cautious about whether a distinct relationship exists between alcohol and crime. She says research varies. Some studies have found a link between alcoholism and domestic violence in only 22 percent of the cases. Others find coincidences in 90 percent of reported abuses, she says. Miss Melling argues that too much stress is put on the reasons for violent behavior and not enough on providing treatment.
Donna Medley, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, points out that ''some men who are (successfully) treated for alcoholism continue to beat their wives.'' The ''severity of a beating may increase with the use of alcohol.''
Anne Ganley, a psychologist and researcher at the American Lake Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., says the problems of violence and alcohol are so prevalent in Western society today that they tend to overlap. She explains that, where alcoholism is abnormally high, as it is in Alaska, the occurrence of violence is also high.
Lucy Berlinger, a staff social worker at a center that aids victims of sexual assault in Seattle, is not reticent about discussing a direct relationship. She points to a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health from 1979 to 1981 which determined that over 50 percent of all rape cases ''involved chemical use, either by the perpetrator, victim, or both.''
What can be done?
Continued research is needed to make clear the extent of the relationship between drunkenness and violence. Alcohol-driven violence must be seen as a serious offense. In addition, young people need to be shown the devastating effect alcohol can have on families and the community. Most important: ''I didn't know what I was doing - I was a blind drunk'' should no longer be tolerated as an excuse. It doesn't mend broken families or broken bones, and it can't restore respect to anyone who has been sexually abused or brutalized.