Findings on Extreme Violence

It is difficult and yet essential to understand extreme violence that leads to death or crippling. The attribution of extreme violence only to criminals or to particular ethnic/racial groups is a politically and psychologically convenient way to deflect attention from other forms of violence. Vilifying a particular subgroup of violent offenders is politically opportunistic, such as when political campaigns focus on law and order. On a psychological level, there is great reluctance to fully understand violence. A defense that appears very early developmentally is reversal of feelings such as when violence becomes an enticing and excited feeling that redirects attention from more stressful states such as fear, suffering and responsibility (Fraiberg). An easy feeling can defensively replace a difficult feeling: right after 9/11, a sensitive and thoughtful child who empathized with the victims and who initially sought to understand the feelings that led to such an attack, later told me that the teachers at her school organized a contest to raise money for the victims and that everyone was excitedly preoccupied with the pizza prize.

The defense of rationalization leads people to feel entitled to be violent or to identify themselves as victims, not aggressors. A radio commentator exemplified sheer denial of violence in stating that the NATO high altitude bombing of Serbia differed in the extent of sadism from ground combat because the fighters did not actually see each other. This is like the early childhood belief that if you do not see something, it does not exist. Impulsive action itself is a defense against a range of psychological tasks and ultimately precludes accurate perception and analysis of reality, such as the violent reaction to 9/11.

Historically, the predominant mode of understanding violence has been the moral and legal approach in which violent crimes and criminals are seen as evil, senseless, and non-human. The moral and legal solution is imprisonment and punishment even though punishment mainly leads to more violence. The moral/legal paradigm rationalizes and justifies the violence of the punishment and prison system. More recently, “scientific” approaches similarly neglect personal history, socio- economic conditions, and interrelated psychological factors. Both North American psychiatry and the neurosciences search for a biological substrate or deficit that could simplistically explain violent behavior. At present, presumption of a biological deficit becomes linked with concerning reactionary policies such as when criminals are a priori identified as incorrigible, or when particular biological markers a priori designate criminal tendencies (see Meloy, for example) – a presumption of guilt even before a violent act is committed (Webb).

Stepping into this field is Dr. James Gilligan, a psychoanalyst who became director of mental health services for the Massachusetts prisons for twenty-five years. Through working with the most violent offenders, he hoped to understand at the microcosmic level the factors that make for collective violence. From the psychoanalytic framework comes three assumptions: that all behavior is comprehensible and makes psychological sense; that even the most “senseless” behavior follows a symbolic logic which can be understood by uncovering its unconscious meaning and motive; and that all behavior has a personal and societal history. After coming to understand the violence of both the criminals and the entire prison system, Gilligan concluded that violence is a public health problem that was only exacerbated by the moral and legal approach. He was able to institute reforms that led to the complete cessation of violence within the prisons he supervised: no homicides, suicides, gang rapes, prison riots.

He states that the “pale abstractions” of the social sciences cannot do justice to the criminals’ catastrophic lives. “In the worlds I have worked in, Oedipus is not a theory or a `complex.’ I have seen Oedipus – a man who killed his father and then blinded himself, not on the stage and not in a textbook, but in real life. I have seen Medea – a woman who killed her own children in response to her husband’s affair with another woman. . . . The blinding of Samson, Tiresias and the Cyclops, the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, are not so much mythic `fictions’ as they are tragic depictions of real acts that real people commit in real life.” The criminals’ early family life, and their life in prison, is extreme in its level of sadism, terror, and degradation. Gilligan found that their violent acts occurred in moments of profound humiliation. Their specific acts were symbolic, a way of speaking with the body in order to ward off overwhelming feelings of shame. The frequent acts of blinding their victims and themselves signified symbolic attempts to not being seen and exposed as weak and impotent. Trivial incidents often seemed to precipitate violence, primarily because the triviality itself was felt to confirm their sense of being utterly inconsequential human beings.

In examining the results of his own prison reforms, and in analyzing epidemiological data and other major hypotheses about violence, he established that violence is not caused by heredity, hormones, or neurological abnormalities. He does find that the necessary psychological vulnerability to shame and powerlessness corresponds with extreme inequities of wealth. He writes that “….the most effective way to increase the amount of violence and crime is to do exactly what we have been doing increasingly over the past decades, namely, to permit – or rather, to force – more and more of our children and adults to be poor, neglected, hungry, homeless, uneducated, and sick. What is particularly effective in increasing the amount of violence in the world is to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. We have not restricted that strategy to this country, but are practicing it on a worldwide scale, among the increasingly impoverished nations of the 3rd world.”

The social sciences amply confirm that poverty kills. In the U.S., a 1% rise in unemployment increases the mortality rate by 2%, homicides and imprisonments by 6%, and infant mortality by 5%. According to the UN Development report, the three richest individuals on earth have assets that exceed the combined GDP of the 48 poorest countries. The 225 richest individuals have a combined wealth of over $1 trillion, equal to the annual income of the poorest 47% of the world’s population, or 2.5 billion people. By comparison, it is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly $40 billion a year. This is less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world. The impoverished people of the world increasingly inhabit urban slums and live in conditions fundamentally caused by the economic policies of globalized capitalism. In these slums, people live in a state of humiliation and insignificance – without education, without the chance of employment or health care, where typically thousands of people share several latrines (see Davis), where daily they face the loss of their history, culture, and land.

Gilligan writes of the pathological state of shame. On the other hand, a crucial step in psychological development is acquiring the capacity to bear usable guilt and shame. “Usable” means that these distressing feelings are tolerated in order to take on the tasks of realistic responsibility and reparation which reflects an accurate appraisal of the state of the world. In October, 2006, George McGovern and William Polk proposed a plan for redressing some of the wrongs inflicted on Iraq by the U.S. They projected a cost of $17.5 billion to compensate for lives and property lost, to rebuild the health and education systems and to restore infrastructure. Predictability, the consideration of reparations is completely ignored at all levels of government. It is an essential ingredient in the pursuit of peace.

Climate change, war, and extreme economic inequity are interrelated in terms of their causes and effects. They are the consequences of “free” trade and “free” market capitalism in which “free” is conflated with democracy. The result is needless suffering and premature death for millions of innocent people. James Gilligan’s effective prison reforms indicate that an integrated public health approach is one place to start, while remaining wary of the pull to obfuscate the enormity of the problems.


Davis, Mike (2006). Planet of slums. Verso: New York.
Fraiberg, Selma (1982). Pathological defenses in infancy. Psychoanalytic Q. 51:612-635.
Gilligan, James (2001). Preventing violence. Thames and Hudson: New York.
Gilligan, James (1997). Reflections on a national epidemic: violence. Vintage: New York.
McGovern, G., Polk, W. (October 2006). “The way out of war.” Harper’s:113, 1877, 31-39.
Meloy, J.R. (1997). The psychology of wickedness: psychopathy and sadism. In Psychiatric Annals: 27:9/September 1997.
Webb, M. (2007). Illusions of security: global surveillance and democracy in the post-9/11 world. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

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