Violence In America

PrintPrintEmailEmailVIOLENCE is the primal problem of American history, the dark reverse of its coin of freedom and abundance. American society, or a conspicuous part of it, has been tumultuous since the beginnings of European colonization. But while seventeenth-century Virginia was a disorderly place, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not, and though the South and the frontier and the black ghetto have known especially high levels of violence and disorder, rural New England and Mormon Utah have almost always been tranquil.

DO THESE DIFFERENCES SIMPLY reflect American pluralism? Perhaps New England was less violent because the godly Pilgrims and Puritans settled there. Perhaps Southern and Western communities were more violent because the presence of slaves and Indians aroused fear and encouraged people to carry guns. Such explanations go a long way toward accounting for the regional peculiarities of American violence, but they are not the whole story.

Men, especially young men, are at the heart of American violence. Their behavior is most dangerous in their teens and twenties, the years when they are likeliest to kill, riot, vandalize, steal, and abuse alcohol or other drugs. The surest way to reduce crime, the psychologist David T. Lykken of the University of Minnesota has remarked, would be to put all able-bodied males between the ages of twelve and twenty-eight into cryogenic sleep.

He has a point. Though the median age of arrest is subject to historical variation (it has gone down in the United States in the last century), the arrest bulge has always occurred among citizens in their teens and twenties and declined rapidly thereafter. So far as anthropologists and historians have been able to discern, this has been true of all societies, from Sweden to Samoa. Nations as far apart in time and character as Victorian England and Hefnerian America have shown similar distributions of arrests by age and gender.

Whenever one spots a universal human pattern, the chances are good that it is rooted in biology, in this case hormonal differences. After conception we are sexually undifferentiated until minute genetic differences trigger the development of testes or ovaries. The testes produce testosterone, which organizes the development of male genitals and shapes the central nervous system. Testosterone is why boys are born boys and why they later become men. In the absence of testosterone the fetus will develop into a female.

At the onset of puberty the testes flood the body with testosterone, raising levels in the blood to as much as twenty times those in women and prepubertal boys. This surge of testosterone has effects that include increased muscle mass and bone density, hairier bodies, deeper voices, and increased libido, impulsiveness, and aggressiveness. We know that testosterone is causally related to these changes because its presence or absence is easily manipulated. Castrated human males, even castrated criminals, lose interest in sex and fighting. All mammals react in the same way, which is one reason we neuter tomcats and clip the testicles of bulls. When testosterone is artificially replaced in castrated man or beast, its effects soon reappear, proving that the hormone, not the missing gonad, is responsible for the physical and behavioral changes.

The surest way to reduce crime would be to put all able-bodied males between twelve and twenty-eight into cryogenic sleep.

Young men awash with testosterone may be a potential source of mischief, but it does not follow that they will get into trouble. Human societies have evolved various institutions to shape, control, and sublimate their energies. The most important of these is the family. Parents are our first governors. They set and enforce limits and guide social behavior. They teach us how to control aggression, defer gratification, work diligently, and care for dependents.

IN COLONIAL AMERICA SUCH DISCI- pline and socialization were shared by surrogate parents—those who supervised apprentices, servants, and young farm workers. In exchange for labor, the master and mistress provided food, shelter, correction, instruction, and sometimes wages to prepare their youthful charges to establish themselves and begin their own families. But the decay of the apprenticeship system in the years from the Revolution to the Civil War and the gradual disappearance of live-in workers eliminated this traditional method of controlling and educating the young. The responsibility reverted to the nuclear family, augmented by schools, churches, and other institutions geared to shaping the characters of young men, such as the YMCA.

Parents do not always behave responsibly, of course. Even so, it is better on average to grow up in an intact two-parent family than in a single-parent family or with no parents at all. Across times and cultures, children who are abandoned or illegitimate or who lack a parent—from death, separation, or divorce—are statistically more prone to delinquency, truancy, dropout, unemployment, illness, injury, drug abuse, theft, and violent crime. The worst effects are most apparent in adolescent boys, who, lacking fatherly control and guidance, are socialized by default in hypermasculine, antisocial families such as gangs.