A Violent, Vicious Cycle
Only the most insensibly violent acts can grab the attention of Americans who enjoy dramatized violence in their favorite television shows and movies. When we hear about these heinous crimes, something stirs inside all but the most desensitized. Sadly, two such incidents have grabbed headlines in recent days.
Observers are struggling to comprehend what happened outside a high-school homecoming dance in Richmond, California, the evening of October 24. Authorities have detained five people after a 15-year-old girl was reportedly beaten and gang raped for more than two hours. As if the assault wasn't bad enough, authorities believe than more than 20 people looked on or participated. Police report that some of the onlookers laughed while others snapped pictures. No one reported the crime to authorities. No one taking photos on a cell phone used the device to call for help.
"This just gets worse and worse the more you dig into it," Richmond Police Department Lt. Mark Gagan told CNN. "It was like a horror movie. I can't believe not one person felt compelled to help her."
Some experts suspect that witnesses feared retaliation if they "snitched," a grievous sin in violent communities. But that theory does not explain why some of the onlookers eventually joined in the rape. Others believe that the so-called bystander effect kicked in to convince at least some of the witnesses that someone else had reported the crime. Or perhaps they simply fell in line with the rest of the tight-lipped crowd.
"If you are in a crowd and you look and see that everyone is doing nothing, then doing nothing becomes the norm," Drew Carberry, a director at the National Council on Crime Prevention, said to CNN.
Similarly, no one did anything to stop the deadly beating of 16-year-old honor student Darrin Albert. Earlier this fall on September 24, a melee erupted between rival groups at Fenger High School in Chicago. Albert, a bystander, was struck with a wooden plank in the brawl, which someone videotaped. Later, Chicagoans watching the fight on the news could hardly believe they were actually seeing such raw violence unfold in broad daylight, in a school, with no police presence to be found.
"This has got to stop," Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote. But why doesn't it? The cycle of death repeats itself again and again.
"The killing, the shock. The shouting, the weeping. The refreshed resolve to make it end. And then the urgency wanes."
National and local leaders dutifully stepped forward to offer their theories for the fight's root causes.
"Somehow many of our young people have lost faith in the future," said Arne Duncan, President Obama's secretary of education and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools between 2001 and 2008. "They've been denied love, support, and guidance and have grown up believing that their life is not worth anything—so no one else's life is worth anything either."
As in the Richmond rape, experts identified reasons for the violence related to social development.
"For a young person to pick up a weapon and kill, the capacity to carry out the act will often have been planted in the heart of the young person early on," Kevin Limbeck, the executive director of Family Focus, wrote to the Chicago Tribune. "That capacity for violence is the result of a negative development process which can take place in the formative moments of his/her young life."
Illinois Democratic state Sen. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, noted that many people tend to blame the parents after these violent outbreaks. But he delivered choice words for the "disastrous school system" where these kids languish. Meeks wrote that 98 percent of Fenger juniors read below their grade level. The situation isn't much better in other schools on Chicago's South and West Sides. College is no option for students trapped in these schools, so hope for the future fades. When hope fades, restraint disappears.