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A Common Agenda for an Attack on Violence


Washington -- "Every man's home may be his castle, but it's not his torture chamber," says Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J. Well before the O.J. Simpson case, Mr. Bradley was seeking to make a national issue of violence.

There's a critical question here: Is domestic violence a phenomenon all on its own? Or is it part and parcel of a American epidemic of violence that will have to be attacked on multiple fronts if it is to be reversed?

It may seem a long distance from ugly pummelings behind closed doors in affluent suburbs to staccato gunfire among drug dealers in a desperate ghetto neighborhood.

But Attorney General Janet Reno says there's a real connection: "Unless we end violence in the home, we're never going to end it on the streets."

Senator Bradley, along the same lines, argues that "the blaze of violence in America is fed by many fires" -- and that they're all related. Television, CDs and video games, he notes, bring violence "into the open windows of our homes" with an "empty litany of bashing and stabbing and shooting."

Guns, Nr, Bradley says, are central to the American violence phenomenon. The United States has more gun dealers than gas stations or grocery stores.

Domestic violence is passed on from generation to generation. Senator Bradley relates his conversation with a woman who had been beaten regularly by her husband. The final straw came when her husband attempted to strangle her. She scooped up her little children and fled to a shelter. But her 2-year-old had seen the strangling, and in the shelter, when the children got into an argument, the woman saw her 2-year-old lunge for the throat of her 4-year-old.

Violence will remain unfettered, Senator Bradley suggests, until liberals and conservatives give up entrenched positions and see violence for what it is -- a fundamental threat to life and liberty. Liberals, he says, have to admit that there are many violent criminals threatening society, who are not just drug-addicted, and that the perpetrators of violence must face the possibility of the death penalty or lifetime incarceration.

Conservatives, by contrast, have to agree to limit the guns which cause 80 percent of homicides.

The senator proposes that every handgun owner be required to carry an identity card, with a picture like a driver's license. All gun transfers should be registered, with tough penalties for violations.

And if the country can develop heat-seeking missiles, it's time, he believes, to develop remote metal-sensing devices which will permit police to monitor people on the streets for possession of a gun. If metal is detected, police would have constitutionally permissible grounds to frisk a suspect. If a gun is found, an arrest could be made in the absence of a valid permit.

Domestic violence must be brought out of the closet and combatted with friendly intervention by friends and neighbors, training of health-care professionals to recognize the condition, counseling hotlines and enough battered-spouse shelters so that women will know they have a way to escape a threatening male partner.

The corporate purveyors of media violence should be hounded with letters to management and boards of directors, letters to newspapers and churches where they live, and boycotts of their programs and products.

And, says Senator Bradley, it's time to establish "15-month houses" -- covering the last trimester of pregnancy and first year of a child's life -- for young unwed mothers in poverty-afflicted inner-city communities.

While many single mothers may do heroic jobs transmitting positive values to their children, the senator warns, "many others are too young, too poor and too unloved, and their children at birth become time bombs waiting to explode in adolescence."

The 15-month houses, he says, would provide the mother with health and substance-abuse screening or treatment, and with education in parenting. Infants would get not just healthy care but systemic cognitive stimulation -- a nurturing practice that radically reduces later behavior problems.

Is it too much to hope that Americans of varied ideologies could try to put aside differences and focus on a common anti-violence agenda? The divisive, politically charged fight over the crime bill now before Congress doesn't offer much hope. Yet if Americans could be brought to focus on Bill Bradley's anti-violence initiatives, one suspects a majority would endorse them.

The ultimate changes have to come in families, schools, neighborhoods. But the time for a balanced, pace-setting national initiative is painfully overdue.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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