It’s been a rough few weeks.

Holiday Violence

1.  Dec 1, 2012.  (Left photo) Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher killed his girlfriend, drove to the Chiefs’ Stadium, talked to his coaches and then killed himself in front of them.

2.  Dec 11, 2012.  (Middle photo) Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, entered a crowded Portland, Oregon mall and killed 2 people before turning the gun on himself.

3.  Dec 14, 2012.  (Right photo) Children are escorted away from Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Adam Lanza, 20, entered the school and killed 20 students and 6 adults before killing himself. He killed his mother at home earlier that morning.

Acts of these types of unimaginable violence cause many of us to wonder how best to stop these types of violent acts.  Some are calling for more gun control to curb these types of incidents.  On Friday’s radio show, Michael Savage said all schools should be staffed with armed guards to prevent these types of attacks.

As we sang the 3rd verse of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” yesterday, my thoughts turned to the families affected by these tragedies.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Many of us wonder if the world is getting more violent.  Back in 2007, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker (in a TED Talks video) has said that violence is actually going down contrary to popular perception. He said,

Image of Jews killed in World War 2 at Auschwitz

Images like this, from the Auschwitz concentration camp, have been seared into our consciousness during the twentieth century and have given us a new understanding of who we are, where we’ve come from and the times we live in. During the twentieth century, we witnessed the atrocities of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Rwanda and other genocides, and even though the twenty-first century is only seven years old, we have already witnessed an ongoing genocide in Darfur and the daily horrors of Iraq. This has led to a common understanding of our situation, namely that modernity has brought us terrible violence, and perhaps that native peoples lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from, to our peril.

Here is an example from an op-ed on Thanksgiving, in the Boston Globe a couple of years ago, where the writer wrote,

“The Indian life was a difficult one, but there were no employment problems, community harmony was strong, substance abuse unknown, crime nearly non-existent, what warfare there was between tribes was largely ritualistic and seldom resulted in indiscriminate or wholesale slaughter.”

Now, you’re all familiar with this treacle. We teach it to our children. We hear it on television and in storybooks. Now, the original title of this session was, “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” and I’m going to present evidence that this particular part of our common understanding is wrong, that, in fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are, that violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

Now, in the decade of Darfur and Iraq, a statement like that might seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. But I’m going to try to convince you that that is the correct picture. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia,

Pinker goes on to show several graphs that support his point. In this graph, he compares the deaths from World Wars 1 and 2 with wars over millennia.  As you can see, the blue graph is a blip compared to the red deaths of hunter-gatherer societies.  He said that if historical rates of war deaths occurred in the 20th century, there would have been 2 Billion deaths rather than 100 million (a factor of 20).  He argues that our current technology of tanks, bombs, and modern weapons saves many more lives than the primitive arrows of the cavemen.

In a state of anarchy, there’s a constant temptation to invade your neighbors preemptively, before they invade you. More recently, Thomas Schelling gives the analogy of a homeowner who hears a rustling in the basement. Being a good American, he has a pistol in the nightstand, pulls out his gun, and walks down the stairs. And what does he see but a burglar with a gun in his hand. Now, each one of them is thinking, “I don’t really want to kill that guy, but he’s about to kill me. Maybe I had better shoot him, before he shoots me, especially since, even if he doesn’t want to kill me, he’s probably worrying right now that I might kill him before he kills me.” And so on. Hunter-gatherer peoples explicitly go through this train of thought, and will often raid their neighbors out of fear of being raided first.

War Deaths 1950-2005

Now, one way of dealing with this problem is by deterrence. You don’t strike first, but you have a publicly announced policy that you will retaliate savagely if you are invaded. The only thing is that it’s liable to having its bluff called, and therefore can only work if it’s credible. To make it credible, you must avenge all insults and settle all scores, which leads to the cycles of bloody vendetta. Life becomes an episode of “The Sopranos.” Hobbes’ solution, the “Leviathan,” was that if authority for the legitimate use of violence was vested in a single democratic agency — a leviathan — then such a state can reduce the temptation of attack, because any kind of aggression will be punished, leaving its profitability as zero. That would remove the temptation to invade preemptively, out of fear of them attacking you first. It removes the need for a hair trigger for retaliation to make your deterrent threat credible. And therefore, it would lead to a state of peace. Eisner — the man who plotted the homicide rates that you failed to see in the earlier slide — argued that the timing of the decline of homicide in Europe coincided with the rise of centralized states. So that’s a bit of a support for the leviathan theory. Also supporting it is the fact that we today see eruptions of violence in zones of anarchy, in failed states, collapsed empires, frontier regions, mafias, street gangs and so on.

Pinker also notes that our modern morals are much different (and he argues much better) than Biblical morals.

Also in the Bible, one sees that the death penalty was the accepted punishment for crimes such as homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents — (Laughter) — and picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

He quotes from the Bible to show that our morals regarding warfare have improved (though you may not like his tone.)

one can read descriptions of what was expected in warfare, such as the following from Numbers 31:

“And they warred against the Midianites as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew all the males. And Moses said unto them, ‘Have you saved all the women alive? Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him, but all the women children that have not know a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.'”

In other words, kill the men; kill the children; if you see any virgins, then you can keep them alive so that you can rape them. You can find four or five passages in the Bible of this ilk.

He didn’t mention this, but our modern wars have many fewer deaths than even the Civil War, in which 8 battles had more than 20,000 killed.  However, I started talking about murder, not war.

What about one-on-one murder? Well, there, there are good statistics, because many municipalities recorded the cause of death. The criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured all of the historical records across Europe for homicide rates in any village, hamlet, town, county that he could find, and he supplemented them with national data, when nations started keeping statistics. He plotted on a logarithmic scale, going from 100 deaths per 100,000 people per year, which was approximately the rate of homicide in the Middle Ages. And the figure plummets down to less than one homicide per 100,000 people per year in seven or eight European countries. Then, there is a slight uptick in the 1960s. The people who said that rock ‘n’ roll would lead to the decline of moral values actually had a grain of truth to that. But there was a decline from at least two orders of magnitude in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present, and the elbow occurred in the early sixteenth century.

Let’s click down now to the decade scale. According to non-governmental organizations that keep such statistics, since 1945, in Europe and the Americas, there has been a steep decline in interstate wars, in deadly ethnic riots or pogroms, and in military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, there’s been a steep decline in deaths in interstate wars. The yellow bars here show the number of deaths per war per year from 1950 to the present. And, as you can see, the death rate goes down from 65,000 deaths per conflict per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 deaths per conflict per year in this decade, as horrific as it is. Even in the year scale, one can see a decline of violence. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been fewer civil wars, fewer genocides — indeed, a 90 percent reduction since post-World War II highs — and even a reversal of the 1960s uptick in homicide and violent crime. This is from the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics. You can see that there is a fairly low rate of violence in the ’50s and the ’60s, then it soared upward for several decades, and began a precipitous decline, starting in the 1990s, so that it went back to the level that was last enjoyed in 1960. President Clinton, if you’re here, thank you. (Laughter)

What do you think of Pinker’s arguments?

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