All in all, despite the headlines, the world is becoming a better and less violent place
The world over, most 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 is, thus far, the least violent and safest century of all. Despite Islamic State, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen etc, less people are being killed at war than ever before. The murder and crime rates are also at their lowest in North America and Europe since the 1960s. Walk the streets of New York and one will see and feel that the crime rate is half of what it was a decade ago. Western Europe today is the safest place in all of human history.
We should go back to Biblical times to see how we have changed. On the way from Egypt to the ‘promised land’, Moses said that God was telling him to order his army when they fought the Midianites and killed 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 1,000 Philistines. These examples and many more come from the scriptures themselves — the same scriptures that small children in Sunday schools draw with crayons.
Going further back in history, we have evidence from prehistoric archaeological sites of intense warfare. The hunter-horticulturists who came after that were even more violent. It was only when humans started to form states that social rules were enforced and warfare dropped very sharply. Since the 17th century, until which 20 percent of the world’s people died from warfare, the rate has declined from three percent deaths in the century to 0.7 percent.
In this century, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed a mere four-hundredth 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 every 1,000 of the US population, yet Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s had a homicide rate of 45 per 1,000 and the national average was 10 per 1,000. According to the World Health Organisation and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the worldwide rate of violent deaths in this century is a low six per every 100,000 people (although Russia, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are much more crime prone than the average). Muslim countries and China, which has long been a continuous civilization, have an even lower rate.
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 15th century an astonishing 26 percent of male aristocrats in Europe died from violence. Now, it is the relatively poor and those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder who are the most prone to commit crimes. Europeans often point their fingers at the US for its high rates of violence but most of the northern states, exempting Chicago and Detroit, have about the same crime rate as Europe. It is the south and Washington DC that have the worst rates of violence. 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 were barely part of British state structures.
Since the 13th century, murder in most of western Europe has declined sharply and records in the UK are good. In the 14th century there were 110 homicides in Oxford per 100,000 people. In London in 1950 it had dropped to one per 100,000. The growth of big cities has actually reduced violence, despite Charles Dickens’ portrayals. All in all, despite the headlines, the world is becoming a better and less violent place. Remember that the next time you switch on the TV news!
Our less violent world | Jonathan Power
The writer has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald