The recurrent brutal murders around the country in 1984 have moved us once again to anguish. The victims' families will carry the scars of their grief always. But most of us will suffer only fleeting horror before returning to our own concerns, until the next tragic episodes occur. Heinous homicides have occurred regularly before, and we have been angry and afraid before, but we have done little to prevent them.
Some people will call for quick activation of the death penalty, but those would-be executioners should know that capital punishment is without proven preventive value. It may temporarily satisfy their desire for vengeance, but it will not halt the spread of the disease.
For violence should be considered a disease -- acute, chronic, and of epidemic proportions. Rampant violence alone can rapidly impair the quality of life in a community and lead to its ultimate deterioration. That it is an urgent public health problem is certified by the recent establishment of a Violence Epidemiology Branch at the Federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
For almost a generation, the United States has averaged more than 20,000 homicides a year, the highest rate among industrialized nations. A third of all homicides occur among family members, a third between acquaintances, and a third between strangers. We don't know enough about any of these categories, nor do we understand well the pathology of so- called serial murderers. But we do know that even in most "impulse" and stranger-to- stranger homicides, the killer is ready and in the mood to kill, given an available weapon, a defenseless victim and an opportunity. Yet, there have been few programs in medical or public-health schools or in the communities themselves to research, study and try to prevent violence and its deadly consequence: murder.
Contrast this neglect of homicide prevention with the many programs for suicide prevention. Most mental-health professionals recognize suicidal persons as mentally disturbed and encourage them to seek help. But those who are inclined to violence against others (and give signals of such potential) are rarely offered counseling. The community seems to be thus suggesting that taking one's own life is a sign of illness, but taking another's is not. Quite the opposite, hospitals and clinics should be actively developing programs for the violently disposed and forging the necessary linkages with law enforcers and the criminal justice system to protect potential victims.
Gun lobbyists proclaim, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Well, we can't eliminate people and we can only try to mitigate the aggressive rages that can drive them to murder, but we can reduce the access of individuals to the handguns responsible for about half of all homicides in America.
Moreover, we can begin to constructively attack this public-health menace at the same time that we seek to improve the socio-economic status of the poor.
First, we should attempt to change those canons that accept violence as a legitimate aspect of family life, as evidenced in child abuse and spouse battering. Research studies show that children who live amid violence are at risk of becoming assaultive and murderous adults. Families must adopt nonviolent modes of child- rearing and reject violence as a method of discipline and resolving conflicts. Parents should also limit their children's exposure to the glamorized violence shown in movies and TV.
Second, there should be programs in all schools, starting in the early grades, to teach children the risks of violence and to help them manage hostility and aggression, their own and that which may be directed against them. And we must seek ways to decrease levels of individual anger and frustration and to channel these emotions positively into education, work, recreation and community service. Churches, settlement houses, health-care facilities and other neighborhood institutions need to participate vigorously in this enterprise.
These are not optional goals. Nothing short of a concerted effort, marshaling all available resources, is required to stem the rising incidence of murder. Suicide prevention programs already exist in many cities; at the very least, we can begin by establishing homicide and violence centers and programs in our major crime areas. These innovations may save the lives of future victims and spare their families that endless grief and horror which follow the murder of a loved one. The writer is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "The community seems to be suggesting that taking one's own life is a sign of illness, but taking another's is not."