Stages of Violence

In his book Masters of Death, author Richard Rhodes draws on the research of criminologist Lonnie Athens in an attempt to explain how German soldiers could be humanly capable of executing thousands of innocent Jewish civilians at gunpoint. Through interviews with violent criminals, Athens ascertained a minimum sequence of violent socialization. These stages of violence were not present in those who had experiences of violence but had not committed violent acts. Based on these stages of violence, Athens proposed a model of violent socialization through which novices to aggression develop the capacity to commit violence against other humans.

Athens’ socialization process applies to those who commit criminal acts of violence. It also covers those who use violence as a means of state-sanctioned enforcement, such as police and military personnel. However, significant differences exist in the extent of violent socialization experienced by individuals in these two categories. The ability of Athens’ theory to account for those differences serves as a point in its favor. The complete socialization process has four stages:

1. Brutalization

This first stage is the only involuntary process in the sequence; the other three result from voluntary decisions made by the subject. Brutalization consists of three experiences that may occur in any order and at different times and places.

   a. Violent Subjugation: An authority figure uses violence or the threat of violence to compel the novice to submit by showing him obedience and respect.

   b. Personal Horrification: The novice witnesses people close to him undergo violent subjugation.

   c. Violent Coaching: Authority figures whom the novice believes to be violent instruct the novice to attack people who provoke him.

According to Athens, all military and police training involves some level of brutalization in order to initiate recruits into the idea of using violence. The trauma of the brutalization stage shatters the novice’s sense of identity and sets him up for the next stage.

Stages of violence, the steps by which ordinary humans turn violent

2. Belligerency

In this stage, the novice begins to question his previous values, which have been upset by the process of brutalization. The novice recognizes the need to find a defense mechanism to allow him to survive future traumas. He also begins to see the benefits espoused by violent coaching. As part of the belligerency stage, the novice begins to adopt the language of violence used by his coaches and becomes passively obedient to them. As a result, he resolves to use violence when necessary to protect himself, especially if he is likely to have success. However, a defeat of his attempt to use violence at this stage may cause him to question this violent resolution.

3. Violent Performance

The period between belligerency and violent performance may be a relatively stable one that lasts the novice’s entire life. The novice may be prepared to use violence when threatened, but may never find himself forced to act on that resolution. Police and soldiers are socialized to the point of violent performance but may remain here if never forced into combat.

4. Virulency

Finally, should the novice carry out a violent performance, he will recognize the power he can wield through violence. The notoriety he receives from a successful performance, combined with the remembered powerlessness of his brutalization, may convince him that violence is a useful solution to his problems. Novices who pass through the virulence stage will resolve to attack others at the very slightest provocation. However, the adoption of virulent behavior remains a choice. Furthermore, each subsequent act of violence requires a new choice on the part of the subject. There is no involuntary violence in Athens’ model.

Athens’ stages of violence help to explain how some German soldiers and their commanders transitioned from defenders of their home country to brutal killers, and I expect to draw on it as I continue my research for my next novel about a mass shooting incident