Reconciliation and Deterrence: A Mental Health Perspective

By Tuller, Liana | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Reconciliation and Deterrence: A Mental Health Perspective

Tuller, Liana, Kennedy School Review


The types of disruptions and trauma experienced by residents of high-crime neighborhoods can be similar to the trauma experienced by children and adults in times of war. Methods used to resolve trauma experienced during war or during times of political violence, specifically methods that involve public actions to reconcile conflicting elements of society to live alongside one another, may also prove effective in reconciling communities plagued by criminal violence. Through the reconciliation of offenders with victims, the establishment of provisions for ex-offender reintegration into society, and the public establishment of new social norms, international approaches to post-political conflict reconciliation and social healing hold promise for reducing crime in high-crime neighborhoods in the United States, specifically through offender-victim reconciliation, community-law enforcement reconciliation, and ex-prisoner reintegration programs.


The killer of Isaura Mendes's son, Bobby, stabbed ten years ago while trying to break up a fight, is still at large. Isaura, whose two sisters have also each lost sons to street violence, goes to church, shops, and walks the streets in her Uphams Corner neighborhood of Boston, aware that her neighbors may know the whereabouts of her son's murderer, but are too afraid to speak to authorities. Some of her neighbors are part of the same gang as the person who killed her son, reported the Boston Herald.

In another Boston neighborhood, freshman Tanisha Brown (1) exited her high school to witness a speeding car spraying bullets into the crowd of kids. Now Tanisha has anxiety attacks when she is in crowded areas, like the school lunchroom, and frequently stays home because of panic attacks. She missed so much school last year that she is repeating ninth grade.

Like many big cities, Boston, Massachusetts, is home to a number of crime-ridden neighborhoods, like Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, whose residents suffer from mass trauma--the type of trauma that begets more violence because people become, by necessity, distrustful of their neighbors, reluctant to let their children out on the street, and unconvinced of the sincerity of law enforcement officials. When the violence never stops, how can communities recover from mass trauma? How can people establish shared social values that condemn violence when they distrust their neighbors because of ongoing violence and when perpetrators live, frequently unpunished, alongside victims and bystanders?

While there are no easy answers, we can look to countries that have emerged peacefully from long periods of intense political violence for practical models that offer hope for our own neighborhoods. Peruvians who lived through their nation's civil war and South Africans who confronted apartheid's political violence suffered similar trauma to that experienced by residents of violent urban U.S. neighborhoods. Yet reconciliation efforts in Peru and South Africa have accomplished some degree of both psychological recovery and relative peace. Public ceremonies can help societies achieve recovery and peace in several ways: by relieving cognitive dissonance associated with living alongside perpetrators who have not faced consequences for their actions, by reintegrating reformed perpetrators into society, and by harnessing the performance aspects of the process through which social bonds are, in a sense, created in the community via a demonstration of public morality.

Although the crime prevention benefits of such public ceremonies may appear to be abstract and immeasurable, examples of community reconciliation in international and domestic contexts demonstrate the power of this approach in ending long periods of violence. Public safety officials, parole boards, police, politicians, and community activists in Boston can learn from these attempts to achieve reconciliation after political violence. …

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