A violent state


LAST WEEK in New York, a 29-year-old man reportedly took his 3-year-old niece to a grassy knoll in Manhattan off FDR Drive and raped her -- in full view of countless commuters stuck in rush-hour traffic.

Even now I can't decide which is more appalling -- a man raping a baby, or people driving by while a man is raping a baby. Worse, though, is that it is becoming less easy to write off these kinds of assaults as isolated acts of the bizarre and perverse. Increasingly, victims are coming out of isolation to let us know that physical and sexual abuse occur at every socio-economic level.

How long we can continue to ignore the violence that is ripping through our families is anyone's guess. But mine is that it will not be long. A shocking report released last week by Maryland's Family Violence Coalition, the first of its kind, found that violence has reached epidemic proportions among families in this state.

Last year alone, 16,000 people, mostly women, were assaulted by their spouses; 70 of them were killed. More than 9,500 children were physically abused; more than 4,000 were sexually abused. All told, nearly 25,000 of our kids were maltreated.

These were only the reported cases. If history is any indicator, there are still countless victims who are too scared to report abuse -- or worse, are not even aware that the beatings or the sexual advances they are experiencing are, in fact, inappropriate or abusive.

In part that is because almost all victims of continuing abuse -- children and adults alike -- tend to see themselves, rather than their abusers, as the cause of the violence. But there is a larger and far more slippery issue -- that violence is so much a part of our culture that by now it is our culture.

Americans have never been much for patience or for fancy sociological analyses. We have, instead, neatly divided the world into two groups -- those on the top and those on the bottom. The moral quest, so to speak, is to come out on the top. And we almost unilaterally glorify violence as the easy solution to deal with the complex problems that sometimes get in the way of our being there. Find a bad guy? Blow him away. A drug dealer? Give him the death penalty. An errant child? Beat her into submission.

Even in the recent Persian Gulf conflict -- which was easily one of the most complex political conundrums of modern times -- America charged into battle under the banner of George Bush's war cry: "We're gonna kick a little ass."

It is particularly important to note that this is selective ass-kicking. While modern pressures and stresses may plunge more families into violence today than they did 100 years ago, when Americans lash out in response, they do so in predictable ways that transcend time and circumstance: They victimize those perceived to be weaker, or less worthy. Men slap their wives around. Parents beat up on the kids. Older abused children, in turn, beat up on their younger siblings. Blacks consistently catch it from whites.

That we can identify these deeply ingrained patterns of violence -- this socially sanctioned pecking order -- is proof enough that solutions will not be simple.

The coalition recommends, first, an obvious step -- a coordinated effort that links child abuse agencies, domestic violence agencies, law enforcement and treatment facilities in both the public and private sectors, so at least victims and abusers can be identified and offered help. And then there's the toughest challenge: We also need a massive public information effort, on the scale of that launched against cigarette smoking, which changes both the language and perceptions surrounding violence, and family violence in particular.

Implementing a vision of this scope will cost plenty and take an enormous amount of political and social energy. And though the long-term social costs of neglect are much greater than the up-front costs of prevention, such arguments have consistently been dismissed as tax-and-spend liberal tripe by both the Reagan and Bush administrations, which will only make progress harder to achieve.

Still, now that the Family Violence Coalition has laid the appalling facts in front of us, now that it has personified the problem and named it, state inaction would be the equivalent of watching through the car window as a grown man rapes a 3-year-old, then locking the doors and driving home.


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