Monday, November 09, 2009 11/9/09 - murder

In today's excerpt - murder rates in the
United States are the highest among affluent
democracies, and historians and
criminologists have only recently attempted
to construct theories to explain these high

"The United States
has the highest homicide rate of any affluent
democracy, nearly four times that of
France and the United Kingdom, and six
times that of Germany. Why? Historians
haven't often asked this question. Even
historians who like to try to solve cold
cases usually cede to sociologists and other
social scientists the study of what makes
murder rates rise and fall, or what might
account for why one country is more murderous
than another. Only in the nineteen-seventies
did historians begin studying homicide in any
systematic way. In the
United States, that effort was led by Eric
Monkkonen, who died in 2005, his promising
work unfinished. Monkkonen's research has
been taken up by Randolph
Roth, whose book 'American Homicide' offers a
vast investigation
of murder, in the aggregate, and over time.

"In the archives, murders are easier to
count than other crimes. Rapes go
unreported, thefts can be hidden, adultery
isn't necessarily actionable, but murder
will nearly always out. Murders enter the
historical record through coroners' inquests,
court transcripts, parish ledgers,
and even tombstones. ... The number of
uncounted murders, known as the 'dark
figure,' is thought to be quite small. Given
archival research, historians can conceivably
count, with fair accuracy, the frequency with
which people of earlier eras
killed one another, with this caveat: the
farther back you go in time - and the
documentary trail doesn't go back much
farther than 1300 - the more fragmentary
the record and the bigger the dark

Europe, homicide rates, conventionally
represented as the number of murder
victims per hundred thousand people in the
population per year, have been falling for
centuries. ... In feuding medieval Europe,
the murder rate hovered
around thirty-five. Duels replaced feuds.
Duels are more mannered; they also have
a lower body count. By 1500, the murder
rate in Western Europe had fallen to
about twenty. Courts had replaced duels.
By 1700, the murder rate had dropped
to five. Today, that rate is generally well
below two, where it has held steady, with
minor fluctuations, for the past century.

"In the United States, the picture could
hardly be more different. The American
homicide rate has been higher than Europe's
from the start, and higher at just
about every stage since. It has also
fluctuated, sometimes wildly. During the
Colonial period, the homicide rate fell,
but in the nineteenth century, while Europe's
kept sinking, the U.S. rate went up
and up. In the twentieth century, the rate
in the United States dropped to about
five during the years following the Second
World War, but then rose, reaching
about eleven in 1991. It has since fallen
once again, to just above five, a rate that
is, nevertheless, twice that of any other
affluent democracy. ...

"2.3 million people are currently behind bars
in the United States. That works out to
nearly one in every hundred adults, the
highest rate anywhere in the world, and four
times the world average. ...

"[Roth theorizes]
that four factors correlate
with the homicide rate: faith that government
is stable and capable of enforcing
just laws; trust in the integrity of
legitimately elected officials; solidarity among
social groups based on race, religion, or
political affiliation; and confidence that
the social hierarchy allows for respect to
be earned without recourse to violence.
When and where people hold these sentiments,
the homicide rate is low, when
and where they don't, it is high."

Jill Lepore, "Rap Sheet," The New
Yorker, November 9, 2009, pp. 79-81.


Blogger Suzy said...

Interesting ... the U.S. is the wealthiest, most educated and most free of the democracies today, so why the intolerance indicated by our high murder rate?

4:27 AM  

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