Re-understanding Violence as We Had to Re-Understand Plague..To Cure It

04/19/2012 11:05 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2012

God was punishing Europe. To the devout Christian populous in 14th century nothing else made sense. Twelve Genoese ships docked in Messina, Sicily in October 1347. Onboard the vessels' dying sailors writhed in agony as their bodies became marred with dark, black, swollen patches oozing blood and pus. The victims smelled awful, sweated profusely, expelled dark foul excretions from their bodies. They expired quickly in horrendous pain.

And, then it spread to the rest of Europe.

Black Death's shadow extended across the continent claiming victims in the most gruesome of ways -- subdermal hemorrhages, crippling pneumonia - -launching a desperate search for causes. There was speculation of contaminated air and theories about the configuration of the planets in these centuries before Pasteur and Koch developed the fundamental concepts of microbiology. An estimated quarter of the population -- some 25 million people -- had perished under the scythe of the Black Death, but God's wrath seemed the prevailing culprit. Any notion that an invisible microorganism -- discovered only centuries later (to be named Yersinia pestis) -- was hitching a ride on the back of a rat in the blood-filled belly of a flea would have been a further fetched concept than astrology, demonic possession or wizardry. These were the days before infectious disease or invisible microorganisms were understood.

The desperate solutions created in this enormous scientific blind spot were deplorable in hindsight, although they must have appeared of some value at the time. In France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland flagellation movements sprung up en masse with rampant persecutions, primarily of immigrants and Jews, throughout those countries. Widows suspected of witchcraft were drowned in moats or burned at the stake. Jewish communities, scapegoated as culprits in spreading the disease through poison, were razed. In one township, they were killed with impunity and hundreds more of the population were thrown into dungeons or tortured to death.

Human history is filled with such tragic flaws and blunders. Blunders that not only fail to put their finger on the problem, but actually compose a "solution" that has no value -- or a counterproductive effect. This is where we are today, relying on prisons and dungeons as solutions to reducing the epidemics of violence.

On February 9 to 11, I had the privilege of connecting with a number of carefully selected scientists and other scientific pioneers to develop a 21st century approach to social conflict. Convening at the MIT Saxelab, neuroscientists, social psychologists and conflict management experts gathered for the Neuroscience and Social Conflict conference to determine effective, first-hand evidence and understanding of initiatives that seem to bear the best results.

For more than 50 years, methods of conflict resolution have been developed with mixed results. In some cases these responses have been ineffective (like the scapegoating that wreaked havoc in the Middle Ages); in others, they have created conditions that exacerbate the situation. Until recently, very little effort has been put forward to evaluate such interventions, but the team assembled at the conference was looking to change that. I spoke on a panel alongside Princeton's Professor Paluck; Emile Bruneau, Researcher at MIT's SaxeLab; and USAID Evaluation Specialist Joseph Hewitt from the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, on "Measuring Conflict Resolution".

CeaseFire has the remarkable distinction among violence prevention programs for having two comprehensive evaluations demonstrate the effectiveness of the public health model in two cities. In 2008, a National Institute of Justice funded evaluation of the CeaseFire violence prevention model in Chicago examined seven communities where the program was implemented. All seven communities experienced a statistically significant reduction in gun violence.

In January, the first rigorous external evaluation of a CeaseFire replication was announced by Johns Hopkins University, demonstrating successful results for reducing violence in all four neighborhoods where it was implemented (read more here). Dr. Daniel Webster, lead author of the study, presented the three-year evaluation of four historically violent neighborhoods: McElderry Park, Elwood Park, Madison-Eastend and Cherry Hill, showing a statistically significant decline in homicides or nonfatal shootings or both in each of the communities.

In one neighborhood, killings were reduced by 56 percent and shootings by 34 percent; in another neighborhood killings were reduced by 53 percent, and in the two other neighborhoods, shootings were reduced by 34 percent and 44 percent.

Two other findings were extremely interesting and important to our work. First, the positive effects (less shootings and/or killings or both) diffused into the neighboring communities as well as people not even involved in the program directly. In other words, high-risk people in the neighborhoods where the CeaseFire model is being implemented were changing their thinking and attitudes toward violence even if we weren't directly working with them.

At this event, the group discussed brain mechanisms that may be involved in the infectious nature of violence as well as why the CeaseFire method of interrupting conflicts and behavior change have a basis in the new sciences.

MIT's Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Saxelab, sponsored the event along with The Project on Justice in Times of Transition to advance the emerging, cutting edge scientific field of neuroscience of conflict. Rather than an academic exercise, the event was a conversation between forward-looking experts and practitioners. CeaseFire shared the vision that violence not only behaves as a disease transmitted person to person, but also that it can be prevented and stopped like a disease.