Statistics provided by the Bureau of Justice indicate that the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen. In 1998, 2,776,800 violent crimes were reported, compared to the 4,191,000 incidents from just five years earlier. Yet, despite the apparent decline, violence remains a concern for much of America.
While violent crime is at a twenty-five-year low, the rate is still much higher than it was in the mid–twentieth century. According to the FBI’s Unified Crime Reports, the rate of violent crime nearly quadrupled between 1960 and 1997. In 1960, the rate was 160 violent crimes per 100,000 persons. Thirty-seven years later, the rate had jumped to 611 violent crimes per 100,000 persons. Among the violent crimes that occurred in the late 1990s was a rash of school shootings, culminating in the massacre at Littleton High School in Colorado in April 1999.
Many commentators charged that the rise in youth violence was due to the influence of violent movies, video games, television programs, and song lyrics. Columnist John Leo maintains that in earlier generations, violence was depicted as a last resort in movies, and not something in which the films’ heroes took pleasure. In present-day society, some observers argue, violence in the media is more prevalent and frequently glorified. Robert Stacy McCain writes in Insight magazine: “When children watch graphic violence in movies and TV shows and also play realistic, violent video games, it breaks down their natural resistance to killing.” In December 1995, epidemiologist Brandon S. Centerwall told Newsweek that without television there would be 10,000 fewer murders per year.
However, popular culture is not the only aspect of American society that has been targeted for inciting violence. Some analysts assert that the public school system is to blame. Psychologist Michael Hurd maintains that students in public schools are not taught the difference between right and wrong and are therefore more likely to commit crimes without considering their actions. He explains: “It’s much easier for kids to rationalize the doing of wrong— especially on the grotesque scale we saw in Littleton, Colorado— when they are taught that there really is no such thing as right or wrong in the first place.” Other commentators link the rise in violence to the concurrent growth in single-parent families. In her contribution to the book Ending the Cycle of Violence, Myriam Miedzian, a journalist and professor of philosophy, writes that the highest rates of violence in American society are found among males who were raised by single mothers.
Those who claim that violence in America is not the result of three decades of violent programming dispute these views. Conservative writer David Horowitz acknowledges that television violence can negatively affect youths who grow up in abusive families but contends that its effect is otherwise overstated. He writes in American Enterprise: “Exactly the same television is watched in South Central Los Angeles and Beverly Hills; in Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada.” In a commentary in USA Today magazine, Joe Saltzman also reiterates the argument that exposure to violence in the media does not automatically lead to violent crime, because school shootings are a rare occurrence. “Logic dictates that, if movies, television, video games, and the Internet are responsible for this kind of behavior, then why is this event so unusual? If these media so corrupt the minds and hearts and souls of America’s young people, then why doesn’t this kind of activity happen every day?”
Another argument exists as well. Many scholars have contended that violence is not the result of popular culture, but is instead an inherent part of American society that is unaffected by current fads or values. David T. Courtwright, the author of Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder From the Frontier to the Inner City, explains it succinctly: “Violence is the primal problem of American history, the dark reverse of its coin of freedom and abundance.” In an article in American Heritage that was adapted from his book, Courtwright details the pattern of violence throughout American history. He notes that violence has always been most prevalent among people—particularly young men—in their teens or twenties, regardless of time or place. In addition, while the breakdown of the family is often seen as a more recent cause of violence, Courtwright observes that it has long led to crime. He writes: “Across times and cultures, children who are abandoned or illegitimate or who lack a parent . . . are statistically more prone to delinquency, truancy, dropout, unemployment, illness, injury, drug abuse, theft, and violent crime. The worst effects are most apparent in adolescent boys.” Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large wrote during the trial of Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing, that America was founded on violence—it was through war and other violent acts that the Pilgrims and settlers wrested land from Native Americans and Mexico. As Large puts it: “We owe a lot of our success to being good at using violence efficiently.”
Whether or not violence in America is a new problem or one that has been a concern for more than two centuries, it is an issue that continues to garner considerable attention. In Violence: Opposing Viewpoints, the state of violence is debated in the following chapters: Is Violence a Serious Problem? What Are the Causes of Violence? What Factors Lead to Youth Violence? How Can Society Respond to Violence? In those chapters, the authors consider the relationship between violence and American society.