My first thought was to recall Abraham Maslow's aphorism: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails." Now I'm beginning to wonder if Mark Rosenberg's notion isn't worth a second thought.
Rosenberg's weird-sounding (at first) idea is that the way to combat criminal violence is to treat it the way we treat infectious diseases: as a public health problem amenable to causal research, therapy and prevention.
Well, of course. Rosenberg is director of the National Center for Injury Prevention, a division of the National Centers for Disease Control, and the infectious-disease approach may be the only tool he has.
As a matter of fact, to the extent that it conjures up the idea of gene therapy or anti-violence vaccines, the disease model may be misleading. This isn't:
"We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol -- cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly -- and banned." Rosenberg's thought is that if we could transform public attitudes toward guns the way we have transformed public attitudes toward cigarettes, we'd go a long way toward curbing our national epidemic of violence.
This, of course, isn't medicine -- though smoking, obviously, leads to medical problems. It's a combination of education and social ostracism, buttressed by legal sanction -- the same combination that has helped to increase the use of seat belts and reduce the incidence of drunk driving. And if that were the extent of it, the disease approach to violence might be a lot less interesting.
One way to get at what Rosenberg and others are talking about -- beyond the public-service announcement approach -- is to consider a particular form of violence: suicide.
There's nothing at all surprising in the notion that suicide is associated with clinical depression and other mental distress as well as with such personality traits as aggression, impulsivity and hopelessness.
But these are precisely the mental and personality traits associated with homicide. Indeed, a number of mental health professionals have come to think of suicide and homicide as opposite sides of the same coin. A Chicago psychiatrist, Carl C. Bell, once put it this way:
"You look at suicidal and homicidal intent, and you see young people who are upset and angry. They've just had an altercation with a friend. They're mad at somebody, they're impulsive. Tempers flare, and somebody they love ends up getting killed. The motivation behind homicide that is due to interpersonal altercation is similar to the loss of control in suicide. We see the same issues."
And this difference: Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men, but white men are twice as likely as black men to commit suicide.
Still, there is an overwhelming link between violent death and guns, which is the reason Rosenberg wants to change the public attitude toward -- and limit access to -- firearms.
The Center for Injury Prevention is already doing research on youthful access to guns. The much tougher question is how to curb the use of firearms -- not in suicide or homicides involving family or friends, but in "public" violence: robberies, revenge assaults and fights among strangers.
These are the categories likely to prove least amenable to anti-firearms campaigns based on the campaigns that led to a decline in smoking and motor vehicle accidents.
Face it: Isn't it the young men of America's inner cities who come to mind when the subject is violence? And isn't this the same group that not only has refused to buckle up but also has been specially targeted by the purveyors of cigarettes and cheap alcohol?
Having said all that, I do believe that the violence that is making us feel so unsafe really does have the earmarks of an epidemic -- starting among those whose resistance is lowest and spreading outward and upward until we are all at risk.
I won't deny the continuing necessity for cops and courts and cages, but their usefulness kicks in after the fact. I just wish I felt more hopeful that Rosenberg and his colleagues might find the key to prevention.