Friday, October 7, 2011

The United States and Its "Medieval" Homicide Rates

We recently discussed Elizabeth Colbert’s article in The New Yorker, Peace in Our Time: Steven Pinker’s history of violence. The purpose of the article was to investigate Pinker’s claim that mankind was tending to a less violent existence and this correlated with fundamental changes in our behavior. In the process, violent death rates were tabulated to the degree possible.

Data seems to indicate that prehistory was rather dangerous with evidence of violent deaths in the 10-50% level. These numbers were obtained from examining ancient burial grounds. Data for European cities date back to medieval times.

"An examination of English court records showed that in the fourteenth century London’s homicide rate was around fifty-five per hundred thousand, and Oxford’s a hundred per hundred thousand. A study of coroners’ records found that in the fifteenth century the homicide rate in Amsterdam hovered around fifty per hundred thousand, and a recent survey of medical records from Italy suggests that in the late sixteenth century Rome’s homicide rate ran to between thirty and seventy per hundred thousand."

These cities now have homicide rates around 1-2 per 100,000. As Colbert suggests

"Western Europe is not only the safest place to live in the world today; it is probably the safest, most peaceful place in the history of humankind."

One of the contrasts Colbert draws to question Pinker’s thesis is the rate of homicides in the United States. The data would indicate that we are not a very homogeneous country when it comes to violence. Our equivalent numbers vary considerably. But we do have some cities that are positively "medieval" in terms of violent deaths (per 100,000 in 2010).

New Orleans   49.1
St. Louis         40.5
Baltimore        34.8
Detroit             34.5
Newark            32.1

On the other hand we have large cities that are relatively peaceful, although far from European standards.

New York     6.4
Los Angeles 7.6
Denver          3.6

One of the more surprising data points comes from El Paso where a value of 0.8 homicides per 100,000 people is tallied. Why is this surprising? El Paso is just across the border from Juarez. Ed Vulliamy, in his book, Amexica, describes Juarez as

"....the world’s most murderous city, with 192 homicides per 100,000 citizens."

One would believe, from politicians pontificating and the press passing on whatever it is told, that lives of border citizens are endangered by the violence in Mexico. Either the data on El Paso is incorrect, or what we are led to believe is just not true.

It would seem that many of our cities are closer to Juarez in terms of violent acts than to the peaceful European cities. There are certainly many explanations that can be offered to explain our large number of homicides, and presumably, each city has its own story to tell, but the net result is rather depressing.

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