To the Editor:
“Faced with complaints of veiled racism, the National Institutes of Health,” you report (front page, Sept. 5), “withdrew financing of an academic conference on the search for a genetic basis for criminal behavior, forcing its indefinite postponement.” However, you overlook the main thrust and context of the criticism of the “Genetic Factors in Crime” conference, which was scheduled for October at the University of Maryland. The conference was the tip of a much larger and more dangerous iceberg, the Federal “violence initiative,” which remains largely untouched.
The violence initiative was announced by Frederick Goodwin, psychiatrist director of the National Institute of Mental Health, addressing the National Mental Health Advisory Council last Feb. 11. Dr. Goodwin’s remarks drew public criticism, as you reported March 8. Dr. Goodwin had compared the “high-impact inner city” to a jungle and its youth to rhesus monkeys who only want to kill one another, have sex and reproduce.
A transcript of Dr. Goodwin’s remarks, subsequently obtained by my organization, disclosed something yet more ominous — his announcement and description of a giant new Federal program to identify potentially violent inner-city children based on biological and genetic “markers.” Specifically rejecting psychosocial explanations for inner-city crime, the violence initiative focuses on allegedly biologically “vulnerable” children and youth for psychiatric diagnosis and preventive treatment.
Dr. Goodwin estimates that 100,000 children, as young as 5, will be identified for psychiatric interventions. He called the violence initiative the No. 1 funding priority for the Federal mental health establishment in 1994.
My organization has since obtained documentation that millions of dollars of Federal funds are being spent on violence initiative research and planning, including studies of both rhesus monkeys and inner-city children. Newly developed psychiatric drugs are being tested for violence prevention in monkey studies, and some psychiatrists are claiming they can be used in humans for the same purpose. It seems inevitable that the violence initiative will involve administering the same drugs to inner-city children. The widespread use of Ritalin to control aggressive children, frequently supported or initiated by public schools, has set a precedent for pharmacological intervention.
As I describe in “Beyond Conflict” (New York, 1992), the violence initiative scapegoats black children and excuses society from facing racism, poverty, unemployment and other problems that cause crime and violence in the inner city. Working closely with members of the black community in New York City, Baltimore and Washington, my center developed a coalition against the violence initiative, focusing first on stopping the conference on genetic factors in crime. The success of the coalition in preventing that conference from taking place must not distract from the larger need to stop the violence initiative.
PETER R. BREGGIN, M.D. Director, Center for the Study of Psychiatry Bethesda, Md., Sept. 6, 1992