By Jonathan Power
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 Ukraine, despite ISIS, despite Iraq, despite Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen et al, with less people being killed in war than ever before.
The murder rate and crime rate 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—the crime rate is nearly half of what it was a decade ago. Western Europe today is the safest place in all human history.
Admittedly the murder rate in New York and other cities increased during the Covid years but it’s falling again now. There was also the added influence of the reaction to George Floyd’s murder by a police officer. Because of this the police moved, using Covid relief funds, to embrace new anti-violence strategies and hire more officers.
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. Only barbarians like in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, the eastern Congo and Myanmar do that now. Admittedly in Europe it happened only 80 years ago.
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. 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 (WHO) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) the world-wide rate of violent deaths in this century is a low 6 per 100,000 (although parts of Russia, of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are much more crime prone than the average). Muslim countries, the Nordic countries and China, with its long and 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’s portrayals.
All in all, despite the headlines, the world is becoming a better and less violent place. In the US today it is, so far in 2023, 5.5 per 100,000.
The next time you switch on the TV or radio news or read a popular newspaper or listen to speeches in parliament remember that! They highlight the individual murders but not the progress.
But there is something else to think about in the time of the Ukraine/Russian war—a war between two civilised countries that had experienced together the horror of World War 2. How can they kill each other when not so long ago they were part of the same family, the same historical unity?
I found a useful observation in a novel that I happen to be reading at the moment by a Turkish writer, Elif Shafak. “It’s only humans that do this”, said Kostas. “Animals don’t. Plants don’t. Insects eat each other. But mass murder, that’s peculiar to our species”. Yes, there’s something unique about the human being—the ability to hunt en masse and to kill our fellows.
Gradually we are improving. We have come a long way. We still have a long way to go.
* Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers.