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Understanding and Preventing Violence: The Psychology of Human Destructiveness

Article excerpt

LEIGHTON C. WHITAKER: Understanding and Preventing Violence: The Psychology of Human Destructiveness. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2000, 227 pp., ISBN 0-8493-2265-0.

I was reading Understanding and Preventing Violence, when the TV images of the terrible destruction of the World Trade Center and The Pentagon filled my mind. What could help our understanding of suicidal fanatics who would kill over 6,000 innocent civilians? I reread Leighton Whitaker's sections on antigovernment extremists, terrorists, and deadly cults. The background of deadly groups like Aryan Nation and Aum in Japan with their techniques, authoritarian leadership, and distance from the victim was helpful. However, these activities seem to pale in comparison with the massive destruction requiring huge expenses, planning, secret organization, and utter disregard for life as was inflicted on New York and Washington, D.C. How is one to understand such religious fanaticism mixed with murderous hatred? It is not Whitaker's fault that he does not answer these questions. None of us anticipated this type and amount of violence. It is for future authors to take up these issues when and if the nation can heal and look at the events with some distance and rationality. That said, the author tries to cover a great deal of material in a small book; from dehumanizing effects of ordinary social interaction to explaining Hitler. Whitaker's approach is to emphasize "the indirect causative factors or influences that provide and facilitate lethal behavior," not just immediate apparent cause.

The second chapter covers a series of observations on social factors and violence. The primary premise is that some solutions to violence-more prisons, more death penalties, more police, and more guns-have actually exacerbated the situation. Portrayal of violence in the media is particularly described and its relationship to self-reinforcing violence in society is pointed out. This chapter, as do the others, attempts to offer constructive suggestions, including improving parenting, teaching, critical thinking, countering racism, reforming education, and filling the spiritual void. This is not an easy agenda to meet.

Chapter three covers institutionalized aggression and violence, ranging from the legal and journalistic professions to extremist and "doomsday" cults. There is specific information on inhibiting the institutional violence and suggestions for inhibiting antigovernment activities. But more generally, what is needed is early education in relationships and democratic living.

Chapter four details a long list of the CIA's institutional aggression over the past fifty years, which involves human rights violations, and outright deaths. Of special note is the case of psychiatrist, Dr. Ewen Cameron, funded by the CIA, who subjected his patients to aggressive treatment in attempts at "depatterning. …