View All Articles

Is violence an infectious disease?

April 01, 2013

Newtown. Aurora. Oak Creek.

A year ago, I’d never even heard of these places, and now those names are permanently imbedded in my mind along with the graphic images of suffering and death.

And now, people are finally talking about it. What can we do to prevent these tragedies? How can we protect our society from senseless bloodshed? I can’t help but think, though, that all of the arguing over guns misses the point a little bit.

Violence is the ultimate problem, isn’t it? The idea that somehow hurting another person is the answer to whatever your problem may be, that’s the real issue. But, it’s such a complex one that we often overlook it because we don’t feel like there’s any hope of solving it. Mankind has perpetrated violence against one another since the beginning of time, and we are destined to repeat this vicious cycle, right?

Perhaps I’m a dreamer, but I just don’t believe that. In a recent workshop on global violence prevention conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, experts in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and public health came together to discuss a new way of thinking about violence: as a contagious disease.

It is contagious

As researchers have studied the incidence of violence over the last 25 years, a curious pattern has emerged. They found that violent acts tend to cluster, spread from one place to another, are often preceded or followed by other violent acts, and these acts can mutate from one type of violence to another. This pattern is reminiscent of any of the outbreaks of infectious diseases throughout history: smallpox, cholera, polio, AIDS.

The infectious agent, or “germ”, is a person’s exposure to violence. This may mean that this person is a victim of violence or merely a witness to others’ violent acts. Depending on a person’s unique susceptibility to the disease, they may or may not show symptoms. But, just like a child who is exposed to tuberculosis early in life and the disease lies dormant until adolescence or adulthood, the contagion of violence may not show it’s true colors until much later.

Much like viruses and bacteria, this contagion also has an uncanny ability to mutate. A person’s exposure may have begun in the home- a witness to domestic violence or a victim of child abuse. And yet, for unknown reasons, this violent tendency may change its form, mutate into suicide or mass murder or dating violence.

How can we explain, then, why some of us who have similar exposures show symptoms of the disease by outward displays of violence and some never become violent? It’s a question that also comes up when looking at the epidemic of HIV or smallpox. People are exposed, but given their unique susceptibility based on their biology, previous exposures, environment, access to care and a variety of other factors, the outcome can be different for different individuals.

However, unlike other infectious diseases where we can minimize susceptibility by providing clean water or sanitation, violence is a global phenomenon. It moves through the families, peer groups, cultures and neighborhoods of every level of society in every civilization on earth.

It is preventable

As research has progressed, the idea that violence is inevitable has proven false. If violence truly is a contagion affecting the brain of those who experience it, it stands to reason that if exposure to violent acts were reduced or eliminated the epidemic could be contained.

And while we often point the finger at media sources such as movies, news coverage or violent video games for exponentially multiplying the reach of these contagious vectors, there are other closer-to-home sources that perpetuate the cycle, too.

If we helped mom and dad work out their marital issues before it resulted in domestic violence, would it prevent their children from ultimately becoming violent themselves? If children were taught coping mechanisms and healthy social norms that showed them how to choose avenues other than violence, would it make a difference?

When it comes to exposure, the likelihood of developing the disease increases with every infectious contact. Could our answers for preventing violence also be tied to the way in which our news media covers tragic events? Could we be doing more harm than good by putting these images in the forefront of impressionable young minds?

Can we find a cure?

I don’t pretend to have all of the large-scale answers to the epidemic of violence that permeates our world, and I don’t have the power to institute change on a global level. I do have the power, though, to dramatically influence my little part of the world: my family.

I can work to maintain a healthy family life to teach my children positive ways of relating to the world around them. I can work to minimize the “germs” of violence that enter my home through television and online media. And when exposures of violence come, as they inevitably will, I will reinforce my family’s belief that hurting another is never the answer to the pain that you’re feeling.

Beyond the reach of our own families, though, we have a responsibility to continue to talk about these things- the real root, not the symptoms of the disease. After all, guns are simply the mutation that has made this contagion of violence more effective, more deadly. But the root of the disease lies in the germs that each of us harbor. We have to face them, name them, and then eradicate them.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll look back on this epidemic as we do that of smallpox or polio- as a thing of the past. Perhaps we’ll be able to count the millions of lives saved.

Maybe we’ll be able to look forward to a future without violence.