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Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.
Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.

The Cycle of Violence

From the Individual to the Global

Source: Whereslugo/Unsplash

“Peace is not the absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition of benevolence, confidence, justice.” - Baruch Spinoza

Violence penetrates all areas of society, whether we know it or not. Apart from obvious forms, it manifests as the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial system, excessive police force, civil strife, and structures that concentrate wealth and resources into the hands of the few. When these break out in war or in individual violence, it is only as an endproduct of a long, predictable process.

This is why the election of a dangerous leader is not an isolated incident, but reflective of our own psychology. Part of it is the paradigm of violence, or the acceptance of violence as a solution, that we subscribe to. As a result, we are caught in a cycle that continues to add violence to our already violent ecology, and another means becomes unimaginable.

As a rule, meeting violence with violence only leads to more of it, but we seem unable to break out of the cycle. Far from a world that is growing more peaceful after the two “wars to end all wars” or enjoying the most peaceable era of all time as some have claimed (Pinker, 2011), violence finds continual evolution in our day. New forms of civil wars, terrorism, oppression, and genocide have arisen, and we have again espoused violence as an answer to these problems in our election and support of a leader who is a great advocate of violence and war.

A vivid example of violence begetting more violence is the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 U.S. and U.K. invasion of Iraq. In Afghanistan, rather than mitigating extremist groups, a military-based approach has led to mutual counterattacks that only escalated the conflict in ways that are difficult to curb to this day. Since we have invaded Iraq, all around the world we have seen an upsurge of terrorist attacks. Invasion and bombing as a means of bringing “democracy” has rather created fertile breeding grounds for the rise of militia groups, raising the scepter of terrorism, and destabilizing governmental structures, which has diminished the possibility of democracy. Hardship and dispersion among inhabitants of invaded countries has spread resentment and recruitments of extremist groups.

The risk of a war-torn society experiencing further violent conflict is very high, due to what is commonly called a “conflict trap.” We have watched, for example, militant groups such as Al Qaeda radicalize into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and mount retaliatory moves against the U.S. and the U.K. Attacks such as the bombing in London that killed 52 people and the beheading of Western journalists in Iraq have occurred as the result of groups identifying themselves as “jihadist”. Perpetrators of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing claimed to act in revenge of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Governmental study results have been spectacular. In contrast to terrorist attacks that averaged slightly more than 28 per year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there has been a steady rise to almost 12,000 attacks per year and more than 28,000 deaths and 35,000 injuries annually. This has resulted in a global increase by more than 400-fold (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2015). Indeed, “the war on terror” turned into a global “fueling of terror.”

The cycle of violence also transpires in the lifetime of an individual. Childhood experiences affect violence perpetration later in life, and abusive environments interrupt normal development to spawn violent propensities. Not only does the experience of childhood abuse lead to suicide and attempts of suicide, it also leads to abuse of others and violent arrests (Lansford, Miller-Johnson, Berlin, Dodge, Bates, and Pettit, 2007). Social experiences of maltreatment, such as racial discrimination, also predict violent behavior. Wars, no longer involving just soldiers and the battlefield, now influence the abuse and development experience of children in cities, towns, villages, and private spaces.

Attitudes and beliefs about violence not only cause direct harm but determine the social and cultural use of violence to solve conflicts at any level. When children observe adults behaving violently, particularly within a culture that accepts violence, they see violence as bringing about desired outcomes or rewards and emulate it. Violence and destruction are seen as ways to discharge the hopelessness, the despair, and the shame of lacking education and employment in the form of glorified terror (Joshi and O’Donnell, 2003). This is consistent with what we are seeing in our own society, with the spike in hate crimes (PBS News Hour, 2017), widespread schoolyard bullying (Samaha, 2017), escalating gun murders (Ingraham, 2017), and a doubling of white supremacist killings (Werner, 2018) under a president who exalts violence.

A cyclical argument—whereby one views the violence as further need for violence to defend or “to protect”—adds to the cycle of violence, with a resulting cascade that increases the chances of victimization with each victimization. The concept of deterring war with weapons is similarly self-defeating. There is no doubt that the last century killed more people than any other century, with animosities mounting to major wars and then to world wars. With each stage of war, more parties entered in the belief that further force would overwhelm the enemy and end the cycles of violence. It was in this context that the first fission, or atomic, bomb appeared (Smyth, 1945). While the project may have begun with “benevolent” intent—to obtain the weapons before Germany under Adolf Hitler and to use them against fascist-leaning Japan—it did not end war. A nuclear arms race began, and the U.S. developed the first fusion, or hydrogen, bomb in 1951, while the Soviet Union soon followed in 1954.

The assurance of mutual destruction and a devastating nuclear holocaust may have briefly deterred the use of thermonuclear weapons during the Cold War, but the mere existence of the weaponry created a psychological attraction on the part of non-nuclear nations, as with India, Pakistan, Iran, Japan, and North Korea. The attraction and modified global “culture” now circles back to fuel a renewed arms race between Russia and the U.S.

However, nuclear war, together with environmental degradation, represents our precipitous drive toward collective suicide and is thus a form of violence against ourselves. An attraction to these, alongside diminishing insight or the ability to identify these as problems, is an alarming sign that mental health professionals can point out. The election and support of a dangerous leader is in line with these and vastly elevate the risk of our jeopardizing our own survival.


Ingraham, C. (2017). Trump promised to end the ‘American carnage.’ Gun deaths are up 12 percent. Washington Post.…

Joshi, P. T., and O’Donnell, D. A. (2003). Consequences of child exposure to war and terrorism. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6(4), 275–292.

Lansford, J. E., Miller-Johnson, S., Berlin, L. J., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J. E., and Pettit, G. S. (2007). Early physical abuse and late violent delinquency: A prospective longitudinal study. Child Maltreatment, 12(3), 233–245.

National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (2015). Annex of Statistical Information: Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. College Park, MD: Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Center of Excellence.

PBS News Hour (2017). Post-election spike in hate crimes persists in 2017. PBS News Hour.…

Pinker, S. (2011). Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. New York, NY: Viking.

Samaha, A. (2017). We found 81 incidents of Trump-inspired bullying that happened last school year. Buzz Feed.…

Smyth, H. D. (1945). Atomic energy for military purposes. Reviews of Modern Physics, 17(4), 351–471.

Werner, K. (2018). White supremacists committed most extremist killings in 2017, ADL says. NBC News.…

About the Author
Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.

Bandy Lee, M.D., is a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and project group leader for the World Health Organization Violence Prevention Alliance. She also authored the textbook Violence.