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A Critical Condition

Yesterday, another tragic police-involved shooting took place, this time in Atlanta. The circumstances were a little unusual and reminded me of a Minute article I wrote in 2005. I am reprinting it here and will discuss its relevance to the Atlanta shooting later in the blog.

THE SOURCE: Winter 2005

When I read newspaper articles about assaults and murders, I often find that the crime's perpetrators had something in common. They were drinking before they committed the violent act. Yet the newspaper accounts rarely, if ever, acknowledge the obvious link between the substance use and these acts. In fact, newspapers and other media tend to actually diminish the role that substances play in facilitating violence.

For example, in an article about a man who killed his brother, the article states that the brothers had a "couple of beers" while fishing, stopped off at a bar "for a couple of beers" before reaching their home where the fatal fight occurred. In another article about a Harvard student who was convicted of murder, the student had spent the evening "barhopping with friends". In a third article, a man was charged in a chainsaw attack on a fishing boat that occurred at the end of a "night that began with a series of friendly drinks". Although all three of the perpetrators of violence and at least two of their victims had been drinking, alcohol is barely mentioned in the newspaper coverage and there is no attempt to link drinking with the violent acts that followed.

Instead, the articles focused upon such aspects as the relative fairness of our criminal justice system when it adjudicates people with money and the fact that domestic violence includes family members other than spouses. While these issues may be noteworthy and important, the relative neglect of the issue more central to the violence itself is readily apparent to those who are all too familiar with the link between substance use and human misery.

Part of the problem with establishing a causal link between substance use and violence is that people fear such a link will diminish the violence itself. The thinking seems to go along these lines: "If we accept that drinking influenced the perpetrator, then we won't affix enough responsibility on the perpetrator for the crime". I do not believe this would be the case. And any harm that would result is overshadowed by the greater harm being done now- by not acknowledging that there is a link between alcohol abuse and violent behavior.

While not a primary cause of the violent act, substance use, and most notably, alcohol, is often a critical and necessary "trigger". In other words, while an individual may have a propensity for violence, substance use is a necessary condition for the violent act to occur. The argument that all violence is not accompanied by substance use does not mitigate the fact that it is present in the vast majority of such acts. In fact, substance use actually raises the probability of being a victim of violence.

Alcohol abuse is largely discounted by our culture as a cause or facilitator of violence because of attitudes that accept such use as benign or innocuous. Since many people drink alcohol, they may not want to believe that it could have a significant impact on their actions. Yet the facts indicate otherwise. We have to ask ourselves: "Would one of the brothers be alive today if they had not stopped off for a 'couple of beers'"? What do you think?

That was written fifteen years ago and there were no racial issues involved. There is, however, commonality among the Atlanta shooting and the episodes described in my article. The victim in Atlanta had been drinking and was actually passed out in the drive through at a Wendy's. The question is: would he have resisted arrest if he had not been drinking? In fact, would he have been there at all if he had not been drinking? Even so, he does not become responsible for the actions of the police, any more than a battered woman is responsible for the actions of her batterer. The issue is what part in the total episode did alcohol play? It is said that you are twice as likely to be a victim of violence if you've been drinking and we already know that the perpetrator of violence is often drinking as well. In some ways, we pay less attention to substance use than we did decades ago. It is pervasive and yet hidden in plain sight. As always, I am interested in your thoughts.

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