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Couple offers insight into why some people become violent

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ginger and Richard Rhodes know a businessman who, when he was 14 or 15 years old, kneecapped a partner in crime for holding back some of the loot.

Twenty or 30 years later, he was awake all night trying to figure out how to deal with a contractor who was ripping him off. When his wife came into his life, he had promised he would turn his back on his life of crime and violence. So he held back from taking a bat to this troublesome associate, a path he would have followed in the past.

Richard Rhodes, an author and editor, and his wife Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist, gave a talk recently titled “Why We Kill: Violence as Socialization.”

Richard Rhodes, an author and editor, and his wife Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist, gave a talk recently titled “Why We Kill: Violence as Socialization.”

Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist, and her husband Richard Rhodes, an author and editor, gave a talk recently titled “Why We Kill: Violence as Socialization.”

Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist, and her husband Richard Rhodes, an author and editor, gave a talk recently titled “Why We Kill: Violence as Socialization.”

The thing is, the bat probably would have solved his problem, Richard Rhodes said. And that’s one of the difficulties in trying to prevent violence in our world.

“That’s why we have to protect people,” he said, pointing to a need for effective courts and law enforcement.

This story was part of a talk Wednesday evening presented by the Santa Fe Institute: “Why We Kill: Violence as Socialization.” Richard Rhodes has written or edited 24 books and Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco, specializes in working with trauma victims.

One of the counter-intuitive tidbits they presented, though, was that killing declined well before court and police systems were solidly in place.

In 14th-century London, the homicide rate was 52 per 100,000 people; the current rate in the United Kingdom is 1.0, Richard Rhodes said. But by the time the bobbies in London were institutionalized in 1829, the murder rate already had dropped close to current levels, he said.

Based on 2012 statistics, the overall homicide rate in the U.S. is 4.7 and in Sweden is 0.7. There are variations, though, he said, noting that the U.S. rate jumped to 10.6 in 1980 because of the crack epidemic and drug dealers’ fights over turf, and that the 2012 rate in New Orleans was 53.5.

He didn’t mention New Mexico, but perhaps he should have taken a look here, too.

New Mexico’s violent crime rate in 2013 was 613 per 100,000 people – about 40 percent higher than the rate for the U.S. as a whole, 368/100,000 – and its homicide rate was 6 per 100,000, compared to a national number of 4.5.

Land of Enchantment, indeed.

Based on the model presented by the Rhodes couple, they’d say most of us in New Mexico aren’t raising our kids right.

They’ve gathered supporting evidence for a model first put forth by criminologist Lonnie Athens that contends all acts of personal violence have their roots in four stages of development.

First is brutalization, when a person is treated harshly by someone close to him, is controlled by that violence (threats often can be enough if they’re credible), sees loved ones subjected to violence that he can do nothing to prevent and is taught by a credible authority figure that violence will solve your problems.

In other words, if a kid comes home crying about a bully being mean to him, the parent or admired older sibling, for example, says to go back and beat up that bully.

“Violent coaching is the crucial part,” Ginger Rhodes said.

The second stage is when the person decides to try a violent act and the third stage is determined by the outcome of that violence, she said. If it was successful, the person might continue down the violent road. If it wasn’t, the person might escalate the violence – try a knife instead of fists, for example – or seek out help from an authority figure, or turn to suicide.

“Most people stop here,” Ginger Rhodes said of the third stage. But some move on to becoming habitual, dangerous, violent criminals.

Maybe they see that defensive violence works and decide to use offensive violence in order to get their own way. Maybe successful violence changes the way they are seen by people around them, getting them more respectful (and fearful) treatment.

“Some become intoxicated by their change in status,” she said.

Of boys who reach that final stage, most get there by the time they’re 12 to 14 years old – it comes somewhat later for girls, Richard Rhodes said.

And how do you prevent them from reaching that stage?

Ah, here comes the rub. Although we probably all can think of someone who should have had a baby snatched from the family’s bosom at the time it was born, we consider the family to be sacred. Outsiders are not welcome to interfere. A common refrain is: “Don’t you tell me how to raise my kid!”

And no one wants the ultimate nightmare nanny state, with government caretakers gathering babies in nurseries to raise them “the right way.”

“The real problem is getting inside the family,” Richard Rhodes said. “That is cherished space.”

They gave examples of regular home visits by nurses from birth to ages 2 to 4, depending on the program, being useful in offering parents alternate approaches to handling cranky or uncooperative tots. In Vermont, comprehensive parent-child centers with a wide range of social services seemed successful in creating a “civil community.”

Anti-bullying programs in schools, Ginger Rhodes said, have had mixed results. Those that focus just on the bully or the victim don’t show much success, she said, while those that put a clear policy in place, and engage teachers in enforcing it and parents in supporting it do better.

And how do you get people in stage four, those who already are violent, to change their behavior?

There are no good answers to that, Richard Rhodes said, except waiting for them to grow out of it. Most criminal activity occurs from ages 15 to 30.

In the meantime, speak softly but carry a big stick.

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