12/27/2012 09:20 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Looking Beyond Sandy Hook: Do Our Children Believe That Violence Is as American as Apple Pie?

The mass shooting of 20 first graders at Sandy Hook has many wondering whether violence has so stained the fabric of American culture that, in order to begin to blot it out, we now must be willing to compromise our personal liberties. Although the focus of the national conversation over the last 10 days has been on gun control and mental illness, most agree that the problem runs much deeper. The tricky part is efficaciously treating this cancer without cutting into the individualism and freedoms that define us as Americans. As we enter 2013, one thing is clear, we must renovate the cultural environment for our children so that in their future, violence isn't as American as apple pie.

As I write in my book:

We only have to look at the disproportionate amount of violent crime in the United States compared to other advanced industrial nations to realize that something is going horribly wrong. In 2010, there were 14,748 homicides in America, nearly seven times more than any other industrialized country, and the firearm homicide rates were nearly twenty times higher. This stark contrast should compel us to ask, What does this pervasive violence in America say about us? Is it a reflection of who we really are, or a clarion call to change?

The most difficult part of my job as a criminal prosecutor, day in and day out, is seeing how much tragedy and pain senseless violence creates. I believe that the human spirit has tremendous resiliency, but unless we continue to nourish, preserve, and protect that spirit, once the criminal justice system gets involved, it's often too late. Much of the damage is already done.

In a 1968 speech titled "The Mindless Menace of Violence," Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy sums it up by saying, "[B]ut this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul. . . . Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again."

Throughout my career, I've tried to underscore that a pervasive trait in those who commit crimes is the failure to take personal responsibility. But we can no longer pretend that our society's broader social problems don't nourish the violent spirit at an early age. Today's children have more access to violent images on TV, the Internet, and video games than ever before. While America's First Amendment rights shield its citizens from excessive government intrusion and censorship, I hope we understand, at least to some degree, that entertainment does indeed enter our psyches, and that children are especially susceptible. Violent movies and games can cause children to ultimately become more aggressive in the short and long term. I think many adults don't realize that the problem lies in the fact that young, developing brains can't distinguish between real and fictional violence. Special effects and advances in digital technology further contribute to the problem of what's real and what's not. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "more than one thousand scientific studies and reviews conclude that significant exposure to media violence increases the risk of aggressive behavior in certain children, desensitizes them to violence and makes them believe that the world is a 'meaner and scarier' place than it is."

That doesn't mean that things out there are fine and dandy. But if every man, woman, and child thinks someone's out to get them, guess what? There'll be a whole lot of fear going on--and someone else is going to get hurt first.

Our earliest influences have the strongest impact on whether we'll commit a violent crime. While there are a number of factors to why someone acts out violently, the home of a child is the least discussed, and in my opinion the most important, arena for stopping the cycle of violence. Studies show that when a child is abused, witnesses domestic violence, or is emotionally neglected and abandoned, the chances of that child acting out in a violent way dramatically increase.

Certainly violence can be found everywhere; no one is ever completely safe. But there's no denying that most violent crimes happen among the poorest people. Compounding the problem even further, children are far more likely than adults to either witness or be the victim of violence. It's clear that early intervention is critical; our childhood experiences often can determine whether we become socially and emotionally healthy or unbalanced and dangerous.

Dr. James Garbarino, a highly respected authority on juvenile aggression and violence, writes:

"These boys fall victim to an unfortunate synchronicity between the demons inhabiting their own internal world and the corrupting influences of modern American culture. They lose their way in the pervasive experience of vicious violence, crude sexuality, shallow materialism, mean-spirited competitiveness, and spiritual emptiness. These factors affect us all to some degree, but they poison these especially vulnerable kids."

Dr. Garbarino, who serves as an adviser to a wide range of organizations, including the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse, the National Institute for Mental Health, and the FBI, found that being exposed to early trauma often distorts a person's "social map" and dramatically expands the circumstances in which one might feel aggression is "appropriate."

In the course of my career, I've reviewed hundreds of sentencing reports detailing the lives of violent criminals.

According to my book:

"Not surprisingly, there are a few nearly universal factors: The defendants were neglected or abused, exposed to violence very early, and usually lived in neighborhoods where there was an influx of guns and drugs. The point is: individuals who later become violent, more often than not, lacked nurturing at a young age. Former gang member and author, K.C. Waters, writes about moral development for the child growing up in an inner-city neighborhood. He attributes the 'gangster mentality' to a lack of family nurturing and an immersion in guns and drugs in their community. Waters concludes that a violent attitude has become 'a characteristic trait in these environments.'

Neurologists studying childhood development have discovered that the brain develops differently in young children exposed to trauma. But one needn't be a neurologist or psychiatrist to understand that the abused, neglected, and traumatized are more likely to become violent adults."

We can marvel at a child's seemingly supernatural growth spurt in cognitive functioning; for example, the enviable ability to learn language at speeds that leave most adult brains in the dust. But this sponge-like quality doesn't only absorb the positive stuff with breakneck efficiency; it's also highly susceptible to the negative.

Children who see violence in the home tend to have trouble bonding with others and feeling empathy, factors that can lead to the child's becoming violent later in life. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that children who witness domestic violence have higher levels of aggression, hostility, anger, oppositional behavior, fear, and anxiety.

In addition, maltreated children often have significantly impaired cognitive and emotional development, making it more likely they'll commit violent acts as adults. In particular, children who suffer direct physical abuse are far more likely to become violent themselves later in life than those who don't. According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, abused and neglected children are eleven times more likely to be arrested as juveniles and, as adults, nearly three times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than those who are not abused or neglected. As Dr. Garbarino puts it, the child sees "how the world works through the lens of his own abuse."

To me, as a criminal prosecutor, protecting children from a violent, dysfunctional family life or violent media is a highly worthy mission -- one that saves not only the child but the rest of us as well.