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Dr. Alfred McAlister, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, headed research that found that Americans aged 14 to 35 were more likely to condone violence than their European counterparts.
American students were more likely than European teens to agree that "war is necessary" (20 percent versus 9 percent) and that "physical punishment is necessary for children" (27 percent versus 10 percent). Perhaps most revealing, more than half of the American youths surveyed agreed that a person has the right to kill in defense of property, compared to less than a fifth of young Europeans.
Teens from two Houston high schools, as well as at a Washington, D.C., school, participated in the survey. Researchers also polled students in Finland, Russia, Estonia and Romania.
The study reveals a U.S.-European gap in what McAlister calls "moral disengagement" making excuses for violence. What's an explanation for this gap? Basically, Americans live in a more violent culture, McAlister says. Where we might laugh or enjoy the sight of someone getting his ass kicked on TV, Europeans are appalled.
But don't go blaming Natural Born Killers or Doom video games for kids going postal, because these are just the latest examples in a long tradition of U.S. violence. Americans, McAlister says, have been fancying themselves tougher and heartier than Europeans ever since they made the long journey across the Atlantic, then pushed west, battling Native Americans. "The violence of the American frontier created a new breed: the American," he says. "We have that belief at a deep, underlying level. We're going to be nice, but if the situation gets tough, we shoot first.
"You see that in Harrison Ford films like Clear and Present Danger or Air Force One, where he's mild-mannered, polite and wearing ties. Then he finds himself in a situation where a foreign enemy has him riled up and now it's right and decent for him to kick their butt. And so he does."
Well, not all Americans. The study revealed that Latino youths were far less likely to endorse war than Anglos and African-Americans. Still, they were more supportive of war than Europeans.
While the Houston and D.C. youths replied similarly to the survey, McAlister added that other studies have revealed that Southerners are more trigger-happy. Herding culture, he hypothesizes, has made us more territorial and quick to pull a gun in the face of insults. "What's really interesting is that gun ownership is the same in the North and South. But in the North, people don't think of guns as things to use to defend their property."
Studying violence scientifically has long interested McAlister. He was horrified by the Vietnam War and knew several people who were shot by sniper Charles Whitman from the University of Texas campus tower more than 20 years ago.
Not that McAlister didn't grow up with cowboy values. "I'm an Anglo from south-central Texas of several generations and not very far removed from cowboys, and thought it was right to carry a gun when I was young. And then I went to Stanford for grad school and discovered that the norm was completely different there."
McAlister plans to expand the survey into a worldwide project studying 25 countries, including cities in South America, Africa and Asia. Gauging international attitudes to violence is important, especially since American media is becoming more pervasive in the rest of the world. He hopes that young people in other countries will continue to resist violent images imported from the U.S. and that the survey will send a message to those who are highly accepting of violence, such as Texans, that their attitude is not the norm.
"Sometimes it's hard to see ourselves because we're all part of our own culture, so when we see things like what happened in Littleton, a seemingly random event, we tend to look at the individual and what's wrong with that individual," he says. "But for those looking from outside the culture, like Europeans, they're saying, 'What's wrong with all of those people. What's wrong with that culture that they're killing people in high rates?' "
McAlister also is pursuing grants to fund antiviolence programs, such as the one that the UT School of Public Health started two years ago at Sharpstown High School. The pilot program, Students for Peace, encouraged teens of different ethnic backgrounds to discuss race relations, stereotypes and violence.
Dr. Rob Peters Jr., who then was a student of McAlister's, helped coordinate the program. Surveys taken before and after the program showed a decrease in violent attitudes. It was a success, Peters says, because students found role models in their peers and realized that although they have different backgrounds, they have similar values. "The old idea of acceptance on an exclusive level, that you stay with your own kind, particularly in a diverse city like Houston, is ridiculous," says Peters, who is now an associate professor at Texas Southern University.
Community-based programs such as Students for Peace are the answer to battling violence in America, he says with conviction. "You have to start with role models in the community. Anything that works is going to come from the community."