Murder in America
Posted in the Minneapolis Forum
#1 Dec 22, 2013
Pieter Spierenburg, a professor of historical criminology at Erasmus University, in Rotterdam, sifts through the evidence in “A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present”(Polity; $24.95). In 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. Spierenburg attributes this long decline to what the German sociologist Norbert Elias called the “civilizing process”(shorthand for a whole class of behaviors requiring physical restraint and self-control, right down to using a fork instead of eating with your hands or stabbing at your food with a knife), and to the growing power of the centralizing state to disarm civilians, control violence, enforce law and order, and, broadly, to hold a monopoly on the use of force.(Anthropologists sometimes talk about a related process, the replacement of a culture of honor with a culture of dignity.) 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.
What accounts for this remarkable difference? Guns leap to mind: in 2008, firearms were involved in two-thirds of all murders in the United States. Yet Roth, who supports gun control, insists that the prevalence of guns in America, and our lax gun laws, can’t account for the whole spread, and a few scholars have argued that laws allowing concealed weapons actually lower the murder rate, by deterring assaults. Some Europeans suspect that Americans haven’t undergone the same “civilizing process,” as if, unmoored from Europe, Colonial Americans went murderously adrift. Spierenburg speculates that democracy came too soon to the United States. By the time European states became democracies, the populace had accepted the authority of the state. But the American Revolution happened before Americans had got used to the idea of a state monopoly on force. Americans therefore preserved for themselves not only the right to bear arms—rather than yielding that right to a strong central government—but also medieval manners: impulsiveness, crudeness, and fidelity to a culture of honor. We’re backward, in other words, because we became free before we learned how to control ourselves.
“I am always right.”
Since: Oct 09
Former MN Taxpayer
#3 Dec 23, 2013
Great question. And a very good solution. It is the government's job to keep everyone safe.
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