In this essay Jennifer James reviews the four steps to becoming a violent criminal and the need for intervention to stop the process


Many Americans are feeling a kind of free-floating anxiety about being attacked. The probability statistics on crime or terrorism don’t match our fears. Personal assaults and murders have been declining. But, we read stories in our newspapers about violence that chill our hearts. The stories, if we do not understand them, create a malaise, pessimism about our future. Why are we not safer?

The question of why we are afraid, if we don’t need to be, is difficult to answer. But, we do know the answer to part of this violence question. We know why most criminals attack or kill.

Criminologists know the common path to violence for most offenders but they don’t know how to get society to block it. There are some uncommon paths; psychopaths and sociopaths are different and violence connected to a drug or alcohol haze or desperation is different.

But most violent criminals move through the four steps that are outlined in Lonnie H. Athens book “Violent Criminal Acts and Actors” and Richard Rhodes book “Why They Kill.” We could, through Intervention, stop the process. The four stages are “brutalization, belligerency, violent performances and virulency.”

The first step, starting in early childhood is brutalization. One or both of the guardians or parents of a child use physical force to discipline, intimidate, control or hurt. Whether from ignorance, personal frustration or their own experiences, the result is a battered, suffocated, scared, tortured and/or humiliated child.

Brutalization has three elements, according to Rhodes:” violent subjugation, personal horrification and violent coaching.” Violent subjugation may be an adult or a gang using violence to force submission. It ranges from psychological intimidation to physical attacks used to force obedience and respect. For the child defiance in this situation is frightening, submission brings relief. But, relief often becomes humiliation, which turns to rage and a desire for revenge. “I am worthless, I hate them!”

Personal horrification is one step removed. The child witnesses someone they care about being violently attacked or subjugated. The desire is to stop the battering, but how? Fear for self may override caring for the victim and the overwhelming feeling is of powerlessness. Such failure creates anger that becomes intense shame. “I cannot protect my mother who I love most of all.”

Violent coaching is usually an informal, covert process. A father or older friend may tell a child the “rules of survival.” They are taught the world is dangerous, full of predators and to get them before they get you. Many media heroes are good guys using extreme forms of violence against bad guys. What coaches do is personalize violence and make it real for the child. “Let me tell you what happened to me and how I fought back.”

Violent coaching is combined with humiliation if the child won’t fight; “You punk, you sissy.” Violent coaches use name-calling, ridicule and threats to encourage violent responses. Racism is a classic example of coaching for broad-based violence. “You can get away with it, they are not like us.”

The second step to violence is belligerency. It is the beginning of a decision to make the brutalization stop. As the child grows up a response pattern develops; if provoked, attack especially if there is a chance you can win the fight. But critical questions remain, “Will I be able to do it, to be violent enough to prevail? Can I hurt someone else and get away with it?”

The third stage, violent performance, answers these questions. Deciding to hurt someone is not a casual act for a child. Athens points out that “ it takes courage to cross that portentous barrier” because you are putting yourself at risk. Most boys or girls wait for a major provocation. It can be a direct physical attack by a family member or a shoving match after a ball game. Victory may move the process of becoming violent forward, defeat may push it back. Hazing and bullying other students is a testing of what adults will allow.

Success may push a young person to the fourth stage, virulency. If the experimentation with violence has been rewarding a child may draw the conclusion that he or she cannot be stopped. The slightest provocation then triggers more violent reactions. He or she has become the adult that brutalized them as a child.

Athens offers a summary of this process, “Any person who…completes the virulency stage … will become a dangerous, violent, criminal. This remains the case regardless of the social class, race, sex or age and intelligence level of people.”

We all want to stop this process. We know we could try harder to protect infants and children. We are trying to reduce the coaching of violent responses to perceived disrespect with new school curriculums on bullying. We have protested gratuitous media violence. We are willing to intervene to stop belligerency and punish virulency.

But, neither understanding nor our ambivalent actions seem to produce enough change. It takes far more individual awareness and personal responsibility. Each of us must notice what is happening to the children around us.

It takes will to intervene because so many adults want to be free to do whatever they think is right regardless of the consequences. But, intervention to stop the violence process is messy and expensive.

Yet, our world gets smaller as we stop walking our own streets and put bars on our windows. Traumatized children keep growing up even if we think they live across town. They do not stay in their own backyard. They travel, they live in our community, they work with us, they marry into our families and then someone is attacked and we wonder how that could happen.

Lonnie Athens, 1997. Violent Criminal Acts and Actors. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Richard Rhodes, 1999. Why They Kill. New York: Vintage.

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