When I was working with gang active and often violent youth in the early 1990s I remember asking a young gangbanger what gave him and his homeboys the idea to form a gang. He explained "we got it from the movie The Warriors."
The Warriors was a popular 1979 movie depicting the bloody battling of rival gangs in New York City. Shortly after it opened the movie sparked sporadic outbreaks of vandalism and three killings involving moviegoers on their way to or from showings.
That was then, this is now. Homicide rates nationally have been on a steady decline over the last decade and a half, as have reported incidents of gang violence.
But in reports by the United Nations, the United States still ranks fifth worldwide for the most murders annually, right below South Africa and Columbia. According to the 2009 Global Peace Index we are nowhere near the top of the list of most peaceful nations, ranked 83rd out of 144 countries.
Much of our violent or less-than-peaceful behavior as a nation can be tied directly to a daily barrage of raw and unfiltered violence on TV, in the movies, and in video games and music. It has been proven that exposure to violence in the media leads to more aggressive behavior among kids. And aggression is a stepping stone to the real thing. It doesn't take a PhD to figure out that viewing 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on TV alone by the time a youth is eighteen (the national average) has a negative impact.
And whether you can draw a straight line between observed and real violence, what does a steady diet of murder, rape, and assault mean for attitudes about conflict resolution and the importance of peaceful behavior? No matter how you slice it a supersized culture of violence leaves little room for peace.
So what can we do about it? Censorship and the barring of free expression is not an option. Decades of protests by family and religious groups have only provided free publicity for any number of movies, video games, and musicians glorifying violence.
We need an immediate and drastic solution. We need a vacation from violence.
Our national vacation from violence would involve a one year moratorium during which major media, entertainment companies, and artists voluntarily agree not to depict or reference violence in any of their works. That means no battle scenes in movies and on TV, no hateful lyrics in songs, and no murderous behavior in video games. The news media could also pitch in by not always leading with reports on violence - sending the message violence belongs in last place. Ideally a Vacation from Violence campaign would coincide with the removal of our troops from Iraq - a perfect time to begin practicing true peacemaking.
Everyone knows violence sells, so the challenge to the public promoters of violence is "are you good enough to make peace sell too"? With all of the creative genius in our media and entertainment industries I'm betting we can. Good storytelling is good storytelling, and people respond whether it is violent or not.
Not only would a reprieve from violence have an impact on the home front, but because the U.S. is the largest and most influential distributor of entertainment globally, it might also change how the world perceives us and itself.
Would such a moratorium stop violence in America? Absolutely not. We cannot simply erase the violence imbedded in our collective minds and culture. And no doubt there are those who would capitalize on a moratorium to gain attention by peddling even more violence, new and old. But even a small percentage of brave and committed souls could send a powerful public message. And if we discover that peace actually sells it could change the game entirely.
What happens if we don't begin a concerted move toward non violence as part of our larger culture? The most frightening thing of all...nothing. Another generation will grow up worshiping the warrior. Left unchallenged the cycle will continue.
In my own experience it already has. Last year an Xbox 360 video game glorifying the original Warriors movie, called The Warriors: Street Brawl, was released. Its appearance on the scene coincides with the coming of age of many of the children of the young gangbangers I once worked with. We all know how that game will end.