National Press Club

Interventions can halt spread of violence, CeaseFire director says

July 3, 2012 | By Mike Smith |

Societal violence behaves like a contagious disease, but can be prevented and curbed with intervention, panelists from CeaseFire and the American Islamic Congress said at at a National Press Club Newsmaker June 28.

CeaseFire executive director Dr. Gary Slutkin, a former World Health Organization epidemiologist and a professor at University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, said violence, whether gang-related, tribal or anti-government, spreads as a neurological and emotional disease. Prevention or intervention involves detection, creating conflict interrupters and reasons to alter the behavior, he said.

People who observe violence may pick up the "disease syndromes" that perpetuate the violence, Slutkin said. The spread of violence, regardless of type, can be mitigated, he said.

“Pressure from within a group is how you get to the ‘tipping point,’” of changing the social norm, Slutkin noted. “This approach offers neutrality, trust, credibility and access.”

It can take 20 years to change social behaviors, Slutkin said.

American Islamic Congress executive director Zainab Al-Suwaji said some of the techniques used to halt gang violence in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States could impact entrenched norms of violence in the Middle East and Africa.

“We are trying to do on the ground in Islamic countries what CeaseFire’s work in Chicago has done," Suwaji said. "How can we implement the project in other places around the world?”