If science were sacred the Keck Center in Washington DC would be among its most noted cathedrals. The lobby in limestone and granite is dominated by a three-wall bronze engraving representing the origins and evolution of scientific inquiry. Phenomena and achievement from the microscopic to the cosmic are visually emblazoned floor to ceiling - Galileo’s map of star formations, Edison’s sketches for the light bulb, endangered Atlantic salmon, a lunar vehicle, Einstein’s theory of relativity - form contemporary glyphs and scientific sigils of progress. Artist Larry Kirkland had been charged with making the engravings for the National Academy of Sciences to symbolize the historic contributions of this system of knowledge to society.

“a historic moment to properly treat violence as an epidemic”
- Dr. Slutkin, Founder and Executive Director of CeaseFire
A conference held in April by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, could one day be included among these profound events. The two-day Workshop on the Contagion of Violence brought together more than two dozen thinkers, academics, scientists, and practitioners in diverse array of disciples to discuss violence— self-directed, collective, interpersonal, community-level, family, domestic, political, ethnic - as “different manifestations of the same disease.”

As Dr. Patrick Kelley, Director of Global Health for the Institute of Medicine (IOM) explained in his opening remarks, the historic workshop is analogous to the story of John Snow pioneer of public health and one of the founding fathers of epidemiology, who in 1854, in the years before the germ theory of disease had been developed, traced the source of a deadly cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district that had claimed 500 lives by the time it was through. Snow, using investigative techniques now common to the field of public health, mapped the cases of the outbreak. Documenting the victims, place and time of the infection, Snow observed the clustering pattern around a water pump on Broad Street. His rigorous efforts tracking the disease to its source were incredibly innovative, forward thinking, and saved untold lives.

Dr. Slutkin, Founder and Executive Director of CeaseFire and a member of the IOM planning committee, has long advanced the theory that violence behaves like a disease. An expert in infectious disease control and epidemiology previously with the World Health Organization, Dr. Slutkin has been considering the spread, transmission, and control of violence as a disease for the past 15 years. Speaking on the significance of the event, he stated it was “a historic moment to properly treat violence as an epidemic”

This misunderstanding of violence, which Dr. Slutkin often explains as being as archaic as the “solutions” that were used to “treat” the plague - flagellation movements; widows suspected of witchcraft drowned in moats or burned at the stake; Jewish communities, scapegoated as culprits, razed to the ground - have their parallels in increased prosecution, super max prisons, and mass incarceration.

Just as the discoveries advanced by John Snow in 1854, untold lives can be saved.
Barry Krisberg in a talk titled, “The Role of Punishment, Incarceration, and Re-entry” referred back to the dungeon metaphor by showing slides of prison cells throughout the country where juvenile offenders are locked away for 23 hours a day. He went on to discuss the stigma that surrounds those who serve their time long after sentencing.

The effects of this misunderstanding of violence were echoed by theorists throughout the workshop. Psychologist Eric Dubow, Bowling Green State University, connected the dots on types of violence transmission showing evidence that survivors of regional conflict carry violence into the home with increased rates of domestic and family violence. Dubow even showed a correlation between nations impacted by civil war and aggressive penalty fouls in soccer.

Bringing the discourse to the neurological level, Jamil Zaki from Stanford University and UCLA’s Marco Iacoboni shared compelling neuroscientific evidence from that supported some other points of CeaseFire’s underlying theory that violence is a learned behavior reinforced by peer expectation. Dr. Iacoboni explained how mirror neurons play an active role in adopting both negative and pro-social behaviors and Dr. Zaki’s findings that there is a neurological reward to belonging to a group and following prescribed social norms.

Jason Featherstone, Executive Director of UK-based CeaseFire replication Surviving our Streets and Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress , who replicates the Iraq-based CeaseFire, brought these perspectives into a real-world historical context demonstrating the contagion in action presenting on the London Riots and the Arab Spring respectively. Featherstone analyzed the events that transpired in Tottenham - an area of London - and spread throughout the city, explaining how an effective mediation structure in place may have been able to interrupt the outbreak. Zainab demonstrated similar patterns of contagion spreading throughout the Middle East.

Expressed in the context of these current events and reinforced throughout the following day in a panel discussion on programs to interrupt the contagion was perhaps the most important and certainly most inspirational aspect of this new vision. If violence can be re-understood through the lens of contagion as a disease, it can be treated and prevented as one.

And most importantly, just as the discoveries advanced by John Snow in 1854, untold lives can be saved.