We’re Learning the Wrong Lessons from Homicide

Photo: © Cat Branchman / cc-by

My beloved city of Jackson, Mississippi is experiencing triple-digit homicides again this year, and in response many of us are taking on superstitious practices that will actually make our lives worse. These practices include:

  • Avoiding specific cities or parts of cities (the vast majority of homicide victims are murdered near where they live and work) ;
  • Avoiding people of other racial and ethnic groups (the vast majority of homicide victims, in every demographic, belong to the same racial and ethnic group as their killer) ; or
  • Being suspicious of strangers (the vast majority of homicide victims are murdered by people they know).

But this doesn’t mean a high homicide rate shouldn’t make us reassess our behavior, and there’s one question that might be worth focusing specifically on: am I, in my words and actions, working for or against the practices of enmeshed conflict and alienation that lead to homicide?

For some of us, that feels like a silly question; we don’t usually think of ourselves as the sort of people who would murder somebody, and we don’t think we have much influence over the sort of people who would. But that isn’t necessarily true. If you Google the phrase “epidemiology of homicide,” you’ll find there’s an entire body of research that suggests interpersonal violence is contagious—that it spreads in waves, like an epidemic.

If we think of homicide as a terminal case of unhealthy interpersonal behavior and external stressors like poverty as a dangerous preexisting factor that can make an otherwise manageable case deadly, COVID comes to mind as a good metaphor. During the early phases of COVID, there were no broadly effective treatments — people either got a really severe case or they didn’t — so we focused on containment of milder cases. That wouldn’t bring back the dead, or even improve the odds of people who were already dying, but by working to “flatten the curve” we could still affect the big picture.

There are a lot of ways we can try to flatten the curve of interpersonal violence that leads to homicide — ranging from prayer to direct-service charity work to expansion of the social safety net. Find one or more that fits into your life. But don’t cling to harmful, superstitious practices that limit your options and shrink your circle of empathy. That won’t fix homicide; it’ll just break you.

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“Head does a good job of presenting his information in an understandable manner, despite the complexity of the topic.” — Booklist. He/him.

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Tom Head, Ph.D.

Tom Head, Ph.D.

“Head does a good job of presenting his information in an understandable manner, despite the complexity of the topic.” — Booklist. He/him.

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