Amanda Ripley

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Murder in America

16th Dec 2009 posted in Resilience

Fascinating piece by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker about why Americans are so much more likely to murder each other than people in other comparable developed nations.

As you might imagine, the answer is: no one knows! But a couple of new books are making provocative new arguments based on actual data, not just conjecture. One thing seems clear: the answer is probably not what you think—or at least not that one thing alone. Not just the prevalence of guns, nor just the violence of our popular culture, etc.

The most startling data point in the piece comes early on, when Lepore reviews the murder rates around the world, over time. It may not surprise you to hear that America’s murder rate is twice that of any other rich democracy. But how to explain the fact that it has always been so—if not worse? In fact, America’s homicide rate has been dramatically higher than comparable nations since, well, the beginning of America.

If there is any solace in the numbers,  then it is that the citizens of developed nations (even Americans!) are much less murderous than they were hundreds of years ago. Today, the American murder rate is just over five victims per hundred thousand people per year. (In Europe, the rate has been below two for much of the past century.) But in medieval times, the European rate was closer to 35. It dropped to five by 1700.

Then again, the murder rate has been dramatically lowered in recent decades by the progress of emergency medicine. It’s not simply that people are getting more peaceful, in other words; it’s that a violent assault (like a car accident) is far less likely to end in death. Good news, but not especially heartening.