Stop all the clocks23rd August 2006
I arrived at work late by local standards - around 9:30 - to a phone already pulsing red. 'There's something you need to know,' came an edgy voice 15 metres away.
Six staccato syllables—no customary greeting, no asking how I was or how wretchedly the traffic had clogged up major thoroughfares. Without pausing to switch on my computer, I fairly flew down the hall.
The two corporate vice presidents were watching the door as I entered, eyes bare and blinking under the frigid fluorescent glare. 'Robert was killed last night,' said one, taking firm hold of my arm. 'He was murdered.' One of them walked me to a chair, where I sat silently, processing the words they had spoken and the implausible facts they appeared to convey.
I don't quite recall what happened next. I know I issued a company statement of sympathy because I have read it in countless newspapers since. Several weeks on, police detectives appear scarcely better illuminated about what happened before and after our corporate solicitor was stabbed to death at age 32, on 2 Aug. 2006, less than a mile from the White House.
In a few short minutes, a brilliant presence became an endless, angry absence—a planned lunch date too painful to scratch out; an e-mail, phone call, or favor now abruptly and unforgiveably impossible to return. I have lost other friends and colleagues to suicide, car wrecks, and cancer, but this particular loss landed like a hammer blow to the solar plexus, leaving all of us who knew Robert Wone gasping for air.
The unexplained murder of a uniquely gifted Washington lawyer—with Chinese roots, an Ivy League education, and a list of charitable endeavours longer than my too-long leg—would surely have garnered international attention as well but for the fact that the American East Coast is grappling with an epidemic of violent crime the likes of which we haven't seen in years.
From Washington to Boston, police have logged a massive rise in violence over the last few months. In Washington, where I work, the mayor has declared a crime emergency, with more than 100 slayings since New Year's Day, many of them in areas long regarded as safe for just about anyone. From police precinct to triage unit to holding cell, U.S. cities are buckling under the burden of so much malicious trauma and choking on the waste of so much blood.
It's reminiscent of the early 1990s, when a university friend in his medical residency told me he was stunned to find Commonwealth military surgeons doing tours in U.S. cities so they might acquire hands-on experience treating gunshot wounds, or GSWs. 'It's the only way they can practice on actual gunshot patients,' my friend explained at the time. 'They come here to get their battlefield training.'
A global menace
As an American myself, all of this makes me cringe. And yet violence poses a global menace to public health. My colleagues who survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields or the Chinese Cultural Revolution will swear that all violence leaves a permanent stain, a wound that scars over time but never quite dissolves into the status quo ante.
With the most violent century in human history so recently behind us, international agencies and governments are reframing their approach to violence and redefining it—rightly, in my view—in the context of public health and the rationing of scarce national resources.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) several years ago issued a first-ever global report on violence and health, and national authorities around the world took notice. A May report by the Scottish Medical Research Council found that knife violence in Scotland constituted a major health hazard, with knife-violence more than doubling over the last 20 years, and that deprivation was the root cause. In Ireland, a conference this coming September by University College Cork, the Health Services Executive, and the Institute of Public Health in Ireland will address 'Violence—A Public Health Issue.'
Among other shocking statistics, the WHO reported that some 1.6 million people die violent deaths every year. And that doesn't include the millions of others who are wounded, maimed, and permanently traumatised by violence against themselves or people they know.
'Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15–44 years worldwide, accounting for 14 percent of deaths among males and 7 percent of deaths among females,' the WHO report said. 'For every person who dies as a result of violence, many more are injured and suffer from a range of physical, sexual, reproductive, and mental health problems. Moreover, violence places a massive burden on national economies, costing countries billions of U.S. dollars each year in health care, law enforcement, and lost productivity.'
Violent criminals, like the poor, are always with us. To believe that violent crime is therefore inevitable is entirely seductive—but I believe this view represents a colossal failure of imagination.
Over the much longer term, I prefer to envisage a kinder world in which governments spend far more on health care, social welfare, and education than on prison cells and weaponry, in which more would-be assailants—so many of whom suffer from pernicious mental illness and acute deprivation—get help before they commit unthinkable crimes, and in which violence isn't just punished but prevented.
As my slain colleague Robert Wone would surely say, what a wonderful world that would be.
(Photo credit: Mel Barnhart - Radio Free Asia)
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