Alex Kotlowitz‘s article in today’s New York Times magazine section (“Blocking the Transmission of Gun Violence”) about CeaseFire and its founder, Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist by training who believes one can combat violence by treating it like a disease, sent my mind reeling. Slutkin’s theory is that “violence directly mimics infections like tuburculosis and AIDS, and so…the treatment ought to mimic the regimen applied to thse diseases: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source.” I must admit that I’m a bit of an epidemophile: for whatever reason, I have a preternatural interest in all things disease-, transmission-, and response-oriented. (Criteria for such an affliction: spend your last vacation devouring Steven Johnson’s enthralling Ghost Map, about the 1854 London Cholera epidemic, or recommend Douglas Preston’s utterly terrifying The Hot Zone, about the horrifyingly emergent Ebola virus, for friends suffering from insomnia, on the theory they won’t be able to sleep after they read it anyway!)
Thus Kotlowitz’s article about Slutkin’s epidemiological approach to violence struck a chord. In the epidemiology of disease, there is always an “index case“—the first case on record. In violence, there is a precipitating event. And, just like an epidemic, the intensity of transmission amplifies throughout the population: a particularly vociferous antagonist can result in tens of crimes, never mind an asymmetric number of shootings and homicides. Enter CeaseFire, an organization which seeks to interrupt violence at its first, most critical step: what epidemiologists would cause “index case transmission”—when the first victim becomes motivated aggressor.
And, just as public health deals with the results of infection (i.e., sick people who become patients), so the results of unchecked transmission of the disease of violence are higher crime rates, an ever-increasing rate of youth-involved gun violence within the otherwise fixed homicide rate, and an exploding prison population. As my colleague Pascal Levensohn recently summarized, the prison population of the US might as well be its own nation. They are the victims of a disease just as surely as were the nineteenth century’s leper colonies: shunned by society, the very definition of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Fortunately, organizations like CeaseFire and PAX, about which I wrote previously in “A PAX on Gun Violence”, understand that ostracism of those infected with this disease isn’t the answer. Recognizing that the ounce of gun violence prevention created by these worthy organization is worth far more than its proverbial pound of cure (actually, that was Benjamin Franklin), both PAX and CeaseFire appear to understand that nipping violence in the bud requires intervention before the disease spreads.