The Origins of Violence

By Ross Bishop

This article is something of a departure. There is a good deal of violence in our world and little meaningful response to it. I am going to address the root causes of two kinds of violence – crime and terrorism. They come from the same sources. Tragically, we are not predisposed to address their causes for the same reasons we ignore the causes of social injustice.

Ultimately it forces us to remedy our own failings toward others, and we do not like being called on to do that. Instead, our militaristic attitude towards both crime and terrorism as history shows us, only makes them worse.

What does it take to create a criminal or a terrorist? Take two identical children. One grows up to be a terrorist, the other grows up to be you. What are the differences? How much frustration and despair does it take to make a person willingly throw their life away as a suicide bomber or choose to spend the rest of their life going in and out of prison for dealing drugs? We can try to imagine, but truthfully, the life experiences of criminals and terrorists are so far removed from our daily world that it is very difficult to relate to the environment that creates them.

During the 19th century, scientists held that criminal behavior was inherited, caused by inferior genes. Theories like this gave support to Darwinian racist beliefs, adding a great deal of racial fuel to the conflict that led to the American Civil War and has fueled racism ever since. Criminals and terrorists are not some genetically deviant species of sub-human. Genes predispose people toward certain behaviors, but it is culture that creates criminals. God does not create good frogs and bad frogs or good trees and bad trees. God just creates frogs and trees. We do the rest. Criminals and terrorists are you, baked and basted in a really nasty oven.

Study after study has shown that subjected to similar conditions, many people would abandon their altruism and turn to crime or terrorism. Terrorist and criminal behavior are expressions of responses to extreme circumstances. As just an illustration, if you have children – how far would you go to protect them? Would you steal to get food? Would you lie to stay alive? Would you kill someone who threatened their safety? You see, you do have it in you! Fortunately for most of us, we never have to go that far. Other people are not so fortunate. And when that happens, there is incredible inner turmoil. When soldiers return from combat, we call it PTSD.

At the core, terrorism and criminality develop from deeply held feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness and the resulting resentment and stress this creates. These feelings come from people who are shut out with little hope of ever being let “in.” For some people this becomes a lifelong ordeal, meaning that there will also be a good deal of suppressed rage to accompany the alienation.

Rage can be internalized as shame or manifested externally as a need to defend oneself or “get back” at parents or a society that has been abusive, unfair and unkind. Holding resentment and feeling treated unfairly makes it easier to rationalize anti-social behavior.

The roots of these difficulties begin when we are very young. Children come into the world powerless. They cannot care for themselves, cannot feed themselves and cannot protect themselves. They are totally dependent on parents for their survival. If not cared for, a child will perish, and children are instinctively aware of their vulnerability. The reason this is important is that the child’s unique position makes her exceptionally vulnerable to parental manipulation.

In a healthy environment there is unconditional love and support from both the family and the community. Under these circumstances a child will evolve from powerless dependency into healthy independence. This is not a smooth or easy transition as the child struggles with issues of identity and power and parents must deal with challenges to their competence and self-confidence. Parents are intimately familiar with the Terrible Twos, a stressful and challenging time for everyone as children begin to establish their independence.

Parents generally love their children. But many parents also have difficulty openly expressing their love. If the process of childhood development (called individuation) is sabotaged by a parent’s inability or unwillingness to openly express, then the child’s development can be impeded. The situation is often complicated by the child being told that she is loved while parental actions are contradictory.

When love is withheld, a child is placed in an impossible position. She has no power to change either her parents or the situation (although she may try). But the child must reconcile the conflict between wanting to be loved and not receiving it (a primal threat). Without some kind of rapprochement she will go crazy. Since she cannot change her circumstances, she will turn to the only thing she can control – her interpretation of the situation. She will do what every child does in this situation.

She will reinterpret what happened in order to resolve her considerable inner conflict. She will decide that she does not deserve to be loved. The explanation is simple. If she is bad or unworthy, then her parent’s behavior becomes understandable. It reconciles the “I love you, but I’m not going to give you my love” conflict. It is not an easy reconciliation, but under the circumstances it is all she can do.

Parents frequently express concern that they have damaged their children by doing the “wrong” things. Raising a healthy child has really little to do with what a parent does. If they feel loved, children are incredibly adaptable. What is important is the heartfelt feelings behind parental actions. Children are incredibly forgiving when they know that a parent is sincerely trying.

Once the child accepts that she is unworthy (or worse), she will retreat into fear and self-protective (fight or flight) behavior. If she retreats, she may become sullen, avoid contact and close off emotionally. If she chooses to fight, she may become rebellious, fight back, become angry, kick and scream, etc.

The severity of her response will match her perception of the threat to her well-being. Her need for self-protection may only drive her into a minor neurosis. Or, if the perceived threat is extreme, she might find it necessary to engage in all-out war, seeking revenge and retribution that can spread far beyond her perpetrators to a wider world.

Notice that these are defensive postures. They are not strategies designed to resolve the problem. They are designed to create distance between her and an external tormentor. But, it is all she feels she can do. If her needs remain unmet, her inner terrorist will remain functional so that she can respond to threats that she feels powerless to address. In this dynamic are contained the seeds of both crime and terrorism.

There are many factors that enter into these situations, and a dysfunctional social environment can powerfully contribute to the dysfunctional beliefs the child is creating. You probably do not listen to rap music, but in addition to lust and materialism, it often speaks of struggle.

Not everyone raised under these circumstances turns violent, but many young people do. The few who pull themselves out, in spite of poor parenting, terrible schools and a degrading social environment, deserve our reverential respect. Their accomplishments, against overwhelming odds, are remarkable.

Thus far I have discussed what might be considered a typically abnormal family environment. But when a parent shifts from simply being unable to love to more extreme behaviors such as outright cruelty or abuse, then the emotional dynamics of the situation build in ways most of us cannot imagine. The circumstances for the child can become so awful that life enters the realm of the surreal, severing the child’s connection to reality.

Then, to make matters even worse, if we put her in a dysfunctional and violent cultural/social environment, we can create a very damaged person filled with incredible despair. She (or more likely, he) can turn revengeful, hateful and explosive in a heartbeat. It is not a large jump from this state to criminal or terrorist behavior.

Consider what we know about arrest (note: not crime) statistics: We have established that between 10 and 20 per cent of children in the general population experience some form of abuse. However, over 80 percent of the prison population has been abused physically. Of all types of childhood maltreatment, physical abuse is the most likely to be associated with arrest for a violent crime, especially amongst males. The group next most likely to be arrested for a violent offense were those who were neglected as children.

Abused children are 11 times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than the general population. Studying groups of young people against control groups of their peers subjected to similar social circumstances, abused children were still five times more likely to be arrested later as juveniles, twice as likely to be arrested as adults, and three times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Separated by sex, forty percent of abused males will be arrested for a violent crime as opposed to sixteen percent of a matching control group. Amongst females, sixteen percent of abused and neglected females will be arrested for violent crime compared to only two percent of a matched peer group.

And remember, these are only arrest statistics; they do not address the number of crimes or acts of violence. Adding one more fact to this mix, we know that serial killers, almost without exception, are severely sexually abused as children.

With less than five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has over one quarter of the world’s prison population. Today, one of every one hundred adults in the U.S is in prison – 2.3 million people. If you add the people on probation, the total surges to 7.2 million. And this population is disproportionatly (by a lot) minoroty.

We have never known what to do with these people, so we sweep them under the rug and warehouse them in prisons. The rest of the world seems to have found ways to be more forgiving.

Violence is not however a uniquely Western quality. In addition to our homegrown crime, we are also living during an age of violent conflict between Western militaristic capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism, adding to the overall culture of violence.

Islamic cultures have extremely strong prohibitions against crime through both social morays and Draconian punishment, and so there is little crime in Islamic societies. But Islamic culture is also quite rigid and can be very violent, endorsing honor killings, wife beating and the sexual mutilation of girls. Exacerbating the violence is the almost total failure of Muslim society to address the emotional, economic and educational needs of its people.

Many people in the Middle East live under the daily threat of either military aggression or terrorist violence. We do not have any frame of reference through which to understand what life must be like under those circumstances. American children are spared the trauma of living with carnage in the news, a daily television staple for Muslim children. Lloyd deMause has written extensively about violence and terrorism in Islamic society. He writes in “The Childhood Origins of Terrorism:”

The roots of current terrorist attacks lie, I believe, not in this or that American foreign policy error but in the extremely abusive families of the terrorists. Children who grow up to be Islamic terrorists are products of a misogynist (ed: woman-hating, anti-feminist.) fundamentalist system . . . as one Muslim sociologist put it bluntly: “In our society there is no relationship of friendship between a man and a woman.” Families that produce the most terrorists are the most violently misogynist; in Afghanistan, for instance, girls cannot attend schools and women who try to hold jobs or who seem to “walk with pride” are killed.

Young girls are treated abominably in most fundamentalist families. When a boy is born, the family rejoices; when a girl is born, the whole family mourns. The girl’s sexuality is so hated that when she is five or so the women grab her, pin her down, and chop off her clitoris and often her labia with a razor blade or piece of glass, ignoring her agony and screams for help, because, they say, her clitoris is “dirty,” “ugly,” “poisonous,” “can cause a voracious appetite for promiscuous sex,” and “might render men impotent.” The area is then often sewed up to prevent intercourse, leaving only a tiny hole for urination. (Note: Over 130 million genitally mutilated women are estimated to live today in Islamic nations.)

deMause then goes on to make a most astute conclusion:

. . . It is not surprising that these mutilated, battered women make less than ideal mothers, re-inflicting their own miseries upon their children. Visitors to families throughout fundamentalist Muslim societies report on the “slapping, striking, whipping and thrashing” of children, with constant shaming and humiliation, often being told by their mothers that they are “cowards” if they don’t hit others. Physical abuse of children is continuous; as the Pakistani Conference on Child Abuse reports: “A large number of children face some form of physical abuse. . .” The report goes on to say that, “Widespread child sexual abuse leads to paranoid, highly traumatized, and revenge-seeking adults. . .“

Adding to deMause’s (and many others’) observations, Jamie Glazov writes in “The Sexual Rage Behind Islamic Terror:”

“Throughout the Islamic Middle East, men and women are taught to be vehemently opposed to pleasure, especially of the sexual variety. Men are raised not only forbidden to touch women, but to even look at them.”

Criminal behavior comes in many flavors. The ghettos of East LA or NY produce a violent kind of crime, the conceit and moral corruption west of Third Avenue or The Hamptons produces another. Criminals and terrorists act as they do because their personal burdens demand that they rend the social fabric. They are unable to behave like normal people and they have little desire to. The dynamics of their personal hell combined with the influence of their dysfunctional social environment make living like you do both problematic and undesirable.

Sociopaths do not see their victims as people but rather as objects. A drug dealer has little regard for the lives he destroys. The men who ran ENRON didn’t care about the people they hurt. Do you really think that the investment bankers responsible for the present economic disaster are remotely sorry for the millions and millions and millions of dollars they have salted away in numbered accounts in the Bahamas? If you listen to their explanations, it is always someone else’s fault anyway. Terrorists throw their lives away because they have little to live for and hope to wake the world up to their plight.

You have a great deal to live for. They don’t.

You have hope. They have little.

Your life was difficult, theirs has been pure hell.

Until we create a social order built around the values that the Creator has given us, the prospects for significant change are poor.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2016

Leave a Reply