The Thermodynamics of Violence

Joel B. Levine MD

For most people today, violence is an abstraction. Kids used to fight their way to school and back. Boxing matches would galvanize the whole country. Now for many, violence is imagined, a thing of Marvel movies, a word that has lost its meaning.

For reasons both correct and false, the Biden administration has made illegal guns the centerpiece of their response to social aberrancy. As best as I can tell, violent behavior, per se, is really not the concern but rather how violence is expressed. So, let’s say, as a premise, that there were no guns but at the same time, no change in the nature in the people who now use them.

For those in an armchair, I can assure that one punch in the face changes a life. Nose broken and breathing is never quite the same. Orbital bones fractured and vision impaired. Teeth out or jaw misaligned and you just look different the rest of your life. These are events trivialized every day as non-life threatening, just life changing.

The emerging truth is hard to speak. We have become a savage society, wild in our emotions, lacking a set of beliefs that define true right and wrong. We make excuses for almost every behavior as long as it does no effect us. An elderly woman was thrown to the ground yesterday and beaten to a pulp. The story lasted less than one news cycle and replaced by a racy shot of J-lo.

I guess when you spend hours in your basement furiously Tweeting, the rush is how fast events come and go. Safe in your skivvies, you can be as brave as Nelson. We are filling the cheapest seats in this virtual Coliseum in Rome.

People reach for their cell phones hoping that recording a killing will go for big bucks or at least as an “ influencer “ viral clip for a day or so. When people do actually interfere, it is the rare event and often those with past some military or martial arts training. But in a society with well less than 0.5% having been in the Service, this is hardly the norm. There are actual clips of women being raped on the floor of a subway station. Voyeurism for violence is now a national pastime.

We are playing Murder Monopoly using zip codes as dividing lines. Yesterday, we got a glimpse of the near future when the shooting outside of the DC stadium interrupted one fantasy with another reality. Look at the thousands suddenly infected by this social virus. As they were streaming from the stadium, it looked eerily like a remake of the Night of the Living Almost Dead. COVID showed how fragile any assumption of safety can be. A bullet in your living room wall will get your attention.

People are buying guns at a record pace and training to use them. For a generation who grew up being told schoolyard dodge ball was a dangerous sport, this is a transformative experience. Private security, as in the hired guns so common in the world at large, is now the perk of public office or celebrity. “I am important enough and have the resources to stay safe” and that is a step up even from Prada.

Arcane discussions on how this happened have lost credibility. We have a problem and it, moment to moment, can become tragically real. More to the point, we are fast approaching the dynamics of societal entropy wherein no amount of energy can find a solution.



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Joel B. Levine MD

Professor of Medicine , essayist, practitioner, basic research and education ; reflections on medicine and modern society