Urban Violence a Threat to Global Peace, Experts Say
Reported by Luba Shara and Sabine Salandy
Anyone who has seen television footage of the poison gas episode in the Tokyo metro or the Oklahoma City bombing knows that the potential for urban violence on the part of political groups is real, said William Wise, formerly the deputy assistant for national security affairs to Vice President Al Gore and until recently, a public policy scholar at the Center.
The main hope for reducing urban violence lies in sound urban governance, consisting of accountability to citizens and attention to their basic needs, argued Wise along with other participants in a June 3 Center conference on urban security. Whether politically or economically motivated, violence in cities is no longer simply a problem at the local level but must be treated as a threat to global peace and stability, conference participants said.
Politically motivated urban violence
According to Wise, political urban violence -- traditionally associated with left-wing political groups with clear goals and organizational structure -- has become less identifiable and more difficult to categorize. Since politically-motivated violence has become more and more common, terrorists are forced to search for more "spectacular" means of getting their message across. The outcome has been devastating in many cases and has alerted the U.S. military to the reality that cities will be the battlegrounds of the future.
Wise speculated that the world's cities, with their high population densities and their concentration of media and national symbols, are becoming "target-rich environments" for groups desiring to destroy the social order. The use of armed forces, however, becomes less effective in cities where even sophisticated weapons are not well suited to fighting. Wise recommended two types of action: while the U.S. military continues to develop weapons capability, we should also look for the systematic origin of urban disorder and fight socio-economic conditions that typically lead to violence.
Economically motivated violence: The case of São Paulo, Brazil
Nancy Cardia from the Núcleo de Estudos da Violência in Brazil identified high unemployment rates as one of the leading causes of crime in São Paulo. Unemployment of the head of household is a new trend contributing to family destruction, alcoholism, and psychological problems such as depression caused by low self-esteem. Where there are no jobs, people tend to work for small businesses that offer no health, retirement or holiday benefits. And, while the informal sector is a critical economic engine in many developing countries, it is often linked to the illegal drug trade.
Recent cuts in government spending on law enforcement have also been playing a role in the growth of urban violence and crime in Brazil's major cities, Cardia added. São Paulo is becoming an armed camp: the wealthy rely on private security for protection while the poor try to arm themselves. It is a vicious circle as insecurity in both groups leads to further development of the legal and illegal arms market and an increase in violence.
U.S. crime on the decline
Unlike Brazil, the crime level in the United States has declined dramatically and is at its lowest level in twenty-five years, explained Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice. He recommended comparing violence trends in different countries in order to determine the most effective measures for combating violent crime worldwide.
According to Travis, for the last quarter of century, crimes against property and violent crimes such as murder and robbery were the most common crimes in U.S. cities. The increase of violent crimes in the 1980s can be explained by the growth of crack and cocaine usage among urban youth.
Research supports the common-sense notion that crime is affected by the strength of the local community, Travis added. Thus, another possible explanation of the declining crime level in the United States is the U.S. government's long-term commitment to eliminate environments conducive to crime. For example, Travis cited the possible effect of raised levels of imprisonment on crime reduction -- the policy adopted by many U.S. states. According to Travis, one in every 150 U.S. citizens has spent some time behind bars.
In addition, the U.S. government together with community groups has paid more attention to police integrity and ethics. When the police system fails, Travis warned, the damage to democratic governance is profound. To prevent this, the National Institute of Justice analyzes crime trends in different areas and attempts to build an anticrime strategy based on broad economic, political, and social contexts.
Importance of civil society
According to researcher Hank Savitch, the cities most prone to violence tend to display the following characteristics:
* high population density
* concentration of economic activity and national symbols
Savitch is developing a theory of urban security, combining data from different cities under a common framework to predict vulnerability and prevent urban crime. According to Savitch's findings, a good predictor of violence is the presence of conditions such as poverty, unemployment, and environmental degradation, leading to the collapse of the family, civic associations, government, and other legitimate institutions.
Besides social breakdown, "resource mobilization" contributes to crime, Savitch said. This occurs when groups "recruit assets and maximize their position in order to gain power" with the ultimate aim of destroying the existing social order. The emergence of radical religious/political groups, especially if coupled with the availability of arms and the existence of a "proximate enemy," can lead to this condition.
However, Jane Holl, director of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, argued that social conditions such as poverty or heterogeneity of a city's population by themselves are insufficient causes of urban violence. What you also find in violent places is a deterioration in the fabric of civil society, as happened for instance in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. According to Holl's observations, a society that wants its citizens to live peacefully should develop the following three conditions:
1. a civil society based on the rule of law,
2. a strong free market economy, and
3. a government formed on the principles of reliability, accountability, and transparency.
Holl rejected the notion that human nature makes violence inevitable. According to Holl, conflicts can be anticipated, avoided, and once begun, curbed. Prevention of urban warfare is tremendously important, she added, given the nature of modern weaponry. Indeed, the use of modern weapons in highly populated areas could have catastrophic consequences. In particular Holl fears the production of small nuclear bombs by terrorist groups. To reduce tension among the groups making up a city's population, leaders should develop an integrated plan of cease-fire and earmark adequate financial resources for combating urban crime, she said.