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Cauldrick Maloney is a reformed gang member who was shot and almost killed a few years ago but now mentors youth about breaking out of the cycle of violence. He is photographed at Breaking the Cycle in Rexdale, Toronto, Ontario on June 8, 2012.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Is it possible to break through the cycle of violence that leads to horrors like last weekend's Eaton Centre shooting? Cauldrick Maloney thinks it is, and he should know.

At the age of 26, he has racked up at least 10 convictions for various crimes. He is a veteran of Toronto area prisons: He's been in the Don jail four times, Maplehurst four times, and Mimico twice. He started getting into trouble in Grade 7 and 8 – skipping school, picking fights – and soon graduated to drug dealing, shoplifting and worse.

It all came to a head when two guys tried to rob him outside an after-hours club. He took bullets to the leg, shoulder and head. One of the bullets is still lodged in the tissue of the right ventricle of his heart.

Friends urged him to track down his assailants and settle the score. But Mr. Maloney has been through Breaking the Cycle, a gang-exit and anti-violence program. It coached participants on how to understand themselves, recognize their anger triggers, think through the consequences of their actions and control their impulses through "self talk," a kind of internal conversation.

At first blush, it all sounds awfully touchy-feely. How do you ever get hard cases like the man who opened fire at the Eaton Centre to go to a discussion group? Incidents like that appear so senseless, their perpetrators so crazed, that it seems wishful to think you can prevent them through mere therapy.

But the violence on the streets of Toronto has a certain brutal logic. The young men who cause it are not insane. Writing them off as simply evil isn't much help either. Most are caught up in what is indeed a cycle – a primitive round of fear and aggression, attack and vengeance – that is as old as humanity.

Writing in 1651, Thomas Hobbes said: "In the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh man invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation."

Diffidence, in Hobbes' time, meant fear. Glory in modern terms is more like credibility. The Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker argues that the same dynamics are at work in our time. You saw it in the spates of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. You see it in the gang warfare and youth violence of Toronto.

Caught in a "Hobbesian trap," men fight over gang turf, drugs or girlfriends rather than the wives and cattle of Hobbes' time, but the drivers are much the same. To be safe, you must be feared. So you defend your reputation at any cost. "Only if you are committed to disprove any suspicion of weakness, to avenge all trespasses and settle all scores will your policy of deterrence be credible," writes Prof. Pinker.

Such a cycle may have been at work at the Eaton Centre. The shooter is said to have been assaulted and stabbed by one of the Eaton Centre victims months earlier.

To Mr. Maloney, last Saturday's shooting seems stupid and senseless, but at the same time, "it hits close to home." Where he comes from, "if somebody hurts you, you hurt them back even worse." If you come under attack, "that is embarrassing to my reputation so I have to go above and beyond and prove I'm not someone you can mess with."

In the end, he told his friends he would not join them if they went after the men who shot him. "I said, 'Listen, I have two kids now. I'm just going to chill out and see what happens.' "

He got his life back on track and now works with troubled youth himself. If he could break the cycle, perhaps it is not too naive to think that others can too.