Contagious: The Pandemic Spread of Violence

Contagious: The Pandemic Spread of Violence

By Shelby Wilds

A Violent Disease

For ten years, physician Gary Slutkin fought epidemics from Africa to Asia. After a decade of his work treating everything from cholera to tuberculosis to AIDS: TED Talks from April 2013 details that “When [Slutkin] returned to the United States, he thought he’d escape brutal epidemic deaths.” But he thought wrong: because soon after gun violence caught his attention, and he began to note, for instance, that the hotspots and clusters of shootings in Chicago mirrored those of cholera cases in Bangladesh (below). Wired of January 18, 2013 contends that at first this research might seem “like common sense. Intuitively we understand that people surrounded by violence are more likely to be violent themselves.”

So currently, we treat violence as a moralistic issue: you’re a bad person or something bad has happened to you, ergo, you do bad things. But Slutkin’s research suggests there’s something more at work here. Wired furthers, “A century from now, people might look back on violence prevention in the early 21st century as we now regard the primitive cholera prevention efforts in the early 19th century, when the disease was considered a product of filth and immorality rather than a microbe.” So his proposal?

We cannot eradicate violence, but we can cure it: because as he argues, violence is a contagious disease and spreads through fights, suicide, murders, or even the media. Considering the CDC reported that in 2010, 148 people suffered a violent death each day in this country, Slutkin’s research could offer a treatment previously overlooked. We’ll examine Slutkin’s theory and apply it, before drawing implications to this disease that has always been around: we just never knew it existed.

Cholera outbreak in Bangladesh (1983 – 2003) compared Chicago homicides in 2010. Cholera research from Ruiz Moreno (2010). Graphic by Chandler Johnson.

A Theory on an Dangerous Epidemic

In 2000, Slutkin initiated his program, Cure Violence in violence-stricken West Garfield Park of Chicago. By approaching violence in the region as a disease, MedScape of April 29, 2013 reports that within the first year of its launch, shootings in the area dropped 67 percent. To understand how this is possible, it’s necessary to unpack how our culture currently attacks violence before understanding how Slutkin’s theory contradicts our techniques.

First, violence is seen as an issue with morals, so to solve this problem, we’ve adopted two distinct approaches: punishment and the “everything” solution. In his TED Talk, Slutkin contends that our culture heavily emphasizes punishment to solve violence, furthering that this approach reminds him “of ancient epidemics that were previously misunderstood because the science hadn’t been there before […], where the prevalent ideas were that there were bad people or bad humors or bad air, and widows were dragged around the moat, and dungeons were part of the solution.”

Considering, however, that the Pew Center on the States from April 2011 reports that between 2004-2007, Arizona alone witnessed a 39.1 percent recidivism rate: clearly punishment doesn’t always work. When punishment falls short, we turn to the “everything” theory, what Slutkin clarifies as the solution seeking to fix, well…Everything: “the schools, the community, the homes, the families, […],” everything except the violence, itself.

Second, Slutkin’s model rivals those used by public health organizations working to reverse epidemics. The 2012 publication, subtly titled, “Violence is a Contagious Disease,” attests that “’types of violence’” like “community violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse, and suicide,” should “be classified as different syndromes of the same disease because they derive from the same cause, but manifest under different circumstances.” So in his TED Talk, Slutkin dissects the three steps to his cure.

First, to interrupt transmission, early cases of violence have to be identified. Second, further transmission is prevented by identifying who else has been exposed to the original infection. Finally, community norms have to be shifted, eventually leading to “group immunity.” Doesn’t sound like much, but this is the same approach that successfully reversed the AIDS epidemic in Uganda.

The Application of Violence

Cure Violence boasts on their website, copyright 2011-2014, that 5 of the 8 communities in Chicago that adopted this approach saw retaliation homicides drop 100 percent, results that prompt an examination of how Slutkin’s theory applies to the individual and their larger society.

First, an individual has to be infected. The aforementioned publication, “Violence is a Contagious Disease,” clarifies that similar to infectious diseases, the levels of susceptibility to violence vary, so this new disease isn’t a condemnation: but for those who do become infected, the aforementioned Wired explains, that exposure to violence is “conceptually similar to exposure to, say cholera or tuberculosis. Acts of violence are the germs. Instead of wracking intestines or lungs, they lodge in the brain.” For example, Cure Violence details on their website that in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, after a 14-year-old boy crossed the imaginary boundary line between two warring gangs, he was shot in the back, highlighting the first step of Slutkin’s approach: identification of the initial infection.

Second, epidemics are contagious, so they don’t stay isolated very long. Wired notes that one isolated act of violence is immediately followed by another, followed by more, followed by strengthening and receding waves. The following waves are the result of one previously infected individual reaching new and vulnerable populations. In Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, for instance, the shooting of the 14-year-old immediately prompted retaliation: cue Slutkin’s second step, identifying those exposed to the original transmission. Cure Violence details this occurred, “When two trained violence interrupters with histories in those two groups caught wind of the escalating danger,” eventually helping the two gangs negotiate peace and erase their imaginary boundary line. Considering that there has yet to be a single shooting stemming from that conflict since it was interrupted, step three of Slutkin’s theory, shifting community norms, can be considered complete.

The Implications of Solving this Pandemic

Dr. Slutkin admits that he intended to get away from infectious diseases, not discover a new one (happens to the best of us), but explains to the aforementioned MedScape, that under this approach, “There is now the possibility of replacing prisons with parks and playgrounds, and the possibility of converting neighborhoods back into neighborhoods.” His conclusion that science may be replacing morality highlights two implications: the new victim and the violence pandemic.

First, this theory debunks the violent criminal’s choice. The aforementioned Wired furthers that individuals exposed to violence “interpret reality through perceptual filters in which violence seems normal and threats are enhanced.” While previously, violent criminals who were exposed to violence were regarded as perpetrators from tough backgrounds: now, they’re infected.

With this in mind, Psychology Today of August 16, 2012 investigates the insanity defense, which holds that “individuals should not be punished for their otherwise criminal acts if they lack certain characteristics that relate to the ability to engage in rational thinking.” Similar to those who plead insanity, perpetrators whose cognitive function has been proven altered, reality is violence for these criminals. The actions of these perpetrators are therefore no longer criminalized: they’re justified symptoms of their infections, stemming from their personal histories. This theory suggests that the armed robber or murderer has the potential to effectively become the newly recognized victim.

Second, the military operates under the assumption that infection is necessary for protection. Unfortunately, under Slutkin’s theory, these efforts to achieve that social order are extraordinarily counterproductive. The aforementioned publication, “Violence is a Contagious Disease,” explains that visual observation and direction victimization are two possible sources of violence transmission.

There is, however, a third: intentional training. U.S. Troops and Veterans Outreach copyright 2009-2014 details that in combat training for some American soldiers, “Servicemembers put their skills to the test as they conduct raids and rescue injured comrades, while dodging rocket-propelled grenades and insurgent fire.” Our soldiers are intentionally infected and then sent all over the world, free to transmit the disease they’ve been carrying.

For instance, while Iraq may have been violence torn before the American invasion in 2003, The New York Times of March 2, 2014 reports, “Violence […] in February killed 703 people, a death toll higher than the same period a year before.” Despite American military attempts to stabilize the country through portrayed necessary violence, countries like Iraq continue to violently spiral long after the last foreign troops leave, meaning we’re not just escalating fear, tension, and violence: we’re creating a pandemic.

The Cure

Maywood, Illinois, just outside Chicago, sought a solution to their high homicide rates. Five years after implementing their Cure Violence program, the neighborhood went an entire year without a single homicide. TEDMED of July 30, 2013 notes that today, 50 sites in 15 American cities, and seven other countries are beginning to develop their own models in preparation: perhaps a necessary step when considering that with this infection, no one is immune.


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