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The Anatomy of Violence

Publication Date: 
April 30, 2007
Sharon Begley with Anne Underwood and Mary Carmichael

This article is part of a Newsweek series on the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Its subhead is "Pathological genes, a disturbed mind, social isolation and a gun culture are not enough. Mass murderers also need the individual will to pull the trigger."

In looking for the root causes of disproportionate homicidal violence in America, the reporters reference the work of Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Friedman, "Crime and Punishment in American History":

Guns explain the high body count in Blacksburg and Columbine; you don't hear of many mass stabbings. But historians have long noted the American propensity toward violence independent of the ubiquity of guns. In his 1970 collection "American Violence: A Documentary History," Richard Hofstadter wrote of the "extraordinary frequency, [the] sheer commonplaceness" of violence in American history. Stanford historian Lawrence Friedman mused that it "must come from somewhere deep in the American personality ... The specific facts of American life made it what it is ... crime has been perhaps a part of the price of liberty."

By the numbers, the United States should have low levels of homicidal violence, which roughly tracks a country's income. Britain, for instance, had 1.5 homicides per 100,000 population between 1998 and 2000. Japan had 1.1, while South Africa had 54. The rate of violent death in the United States was 5.9 per 100,000—above even Turkey's 2.5...