Medical Studies

Violence: A Vicious Cycle

The August 1st edition of JAMA has an interesting article which examines how exposure to war crimes affects individuals view about peaceful negotiations (“…War Crimes…“). The study takes place in the Acholi, Lango, and Teso subregions in northern Uganda. Since the late 1980s, many people in this area of Uganda experienced the bitter fighting between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army.

The research paper interviews over 2500 adults in villages and camps for internally displaced person. The interviewers used various checklists to asses whether or not each individual suffered from depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of the total sample, 45% suffered from depression and 74% were diagnosed with PTSD. Then the interviewers inquired as to the individuals’ views regarding peace.

Respondents were asked how they defined peace. The answers were recoded at the analysis stage in 3 variables reflecting the range of responses: the absence of violence (yes or no); unity—eg, togetherness, living together (yes or no); and human/social development—eg, education, economic development (yes or no). Respondents were then asked how they believed peace could be achieved. The range of responses was recoded during the analysis stage in 2 variables: identified nonviolent mechanisms, such as peace talks and amnesties (yes or no); and identified violent mechanisms, such as killing enemy combatants and their leaders (yes or no).

The study finds that “Respondents who met the PTSD symptom criteria were more likely to identify violence as a means to achieve peace (OR, 1.31; 95% CI, 1.05-1.65). Respondents who met the depression symptom criteria were less likely to identify nonviolence as a means to achieve peace (OR, 0.77; 95% CI, 0.65-0.93).”

The authors also divide respondents into 4 groups: 1) those with low exposure to violence, 2) those who had witnessed violence, 3) people directly threatened/injured and 4) a group who was abducted. Perhaps surprisingly, the groups did not differ significantly with regards to their views of peace–with the exception that group 4 was less likely to believe non-violent mechanisms could achieve peace. It seems to matter not just to which type of violence people were subjected, but also how they react mentally (with regards to depression and PTSD).

In summary, people who experience violent acts and suffer PTSD are more likely to view violence as a means to peace. This theory was voiced 50 years earlier in a less scientific, but more poetic manner by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he proclaimed: “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence.”