By Jonathan Power
At this time of Christmas and thoughts of peace on earth we should reflect that the world over most of public opinion is ignorant of just how much violence has declined over the last 3,000 years. Judging by the historical record the 21st century, thus far, is the least violent and safest century of all despite Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, with less people being killed in war than ever before and despite the preceding century being the greatest killing field of them all. (Only the 17th century with its European Wars of Religion was equally bad.)
The murder rate and crime rate are also at their lowest in North America and Europe since the crazy – and some people would say the disturbed – late 1960s. Walk the streets of New York and one will see- and feel- the crime rate is half of what it was a decade ago. Western Europe today is the safest place in all human history.
We should go back to Biblical times to see how we’ve changed.
On the way from Egypt to the “promised land” Moses said God was telling him to order his army when they fought the Midianites to kill all the women and children. When Joshua invaded Canaan and sacked Jericho, after the walls came tumbling down “both man and woman, young and old were destroyed with the edge of the sword”. Samson established his reputation by killing 30 men during his wedding feast. Then to avenge the killing of his wife and father he slaughtered a thousand Philistines. These examples and many more come from the scriptures themselves- the same scriptures that small children in their Sunday schools draw with crayons.
Going further back into history we have evidence in prehistoric archaeological sites of intense warfare. The hunter-horticulturists who came after them were even more violent. It was only when humans started to form states when social rules were enforced that warfare dropped and did very sharply. Since the seventeenth century until the twentieth the percentage of the world’s people who died from warfare declined from 3% of deaths in the century to 0.7%
In this century the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan killed a mere four hundredths of a percent of the American population. However the American crime rate has been extraordinarily high until recently. US war deaths in the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq were 3.7 per 1000 of the US population yet Detroit in the 1970s and 80s had a homicide rate of 45 per thousand and the national average was 10 per thousand.
According to the World Health Organisation and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime the world-wide rate of violent deaths in this century is a low 6 per 100,000 (although Russia, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa ad Latin America are much crime prone than the average). Muslim countries and China with its long a continuous civilization have a rate even lower.
Until two centuries ago wealthy people in Europe and the US were more violent than the poor. Gentlemen carried swords and used them with abandon to avenge insults. In the fifteenth century an astonishing 26% of male aristocrats in Europe died from violence. Now it is the relatively poor on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder who are the most crime prone.
Europeans often point their figure at America for its high rates of violence but most of the northern states, exempting Chicago and Detroit, have about the same rate as Europe. It is the south and Washington DC that have the worst. Southern whites are more violent than northern whites and southern blacks more violent than northern blacks. Blacks have the highest rates of violence of all- the legacy of slavery, poverty and discrimination. Southern whites inherited their propensity for violence from settlers from Scotland and Ireland who before they emigrated in very large numbers had lived in the mountains and who were barely part of British state structures.
Since the 13th century murder in most of Western Europe has declined sharply. Records in Britain are good. In the 14th century there were in Oxford 110 homicides per 100,000 people. In mid-century London in 1950 it had dropped to 1 per 100,000. The growth of big cities actually reduced violence despite Charles Dickens’ portrayals. Over time a culture of defending one’s honour on the slightest pretext has given way to a culture of dignity, according to Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, who has written the best book on violence “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”.
All in all the world is becoming a better place. Let’s rejoice this Christmas and resolve to do even better rather than being taken in by the television news and the newspaper headlines.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power