11/23/10 - murder

In today's encore excerpt - murder rates in the United States are the highest among affluent democracies and historians and criminologists have only recently attempted to construct theories to explain these high levels:

"The United States has the highest homicide rate legend may be false of any affluent democracy, nearly four times that of France and the United Kingdom, and six times that of Germany. Why? Historians haven't often asked this question. Even historians who like to try to solve cold cases usually cede to sociologists and other social scientists the study of what makes murder rates rise and fall, or what might account for why one country is more murderous than another. Only in the nineteen-seventies did historians begin studying homicide in any systematic way. In the United States that effort was led by Eric Monkkonen, who died in 2005, his promising work unfinished. Monkkonen's research has been taken up by Randolph Roth, whose book 'American Homicide' offers a vast investigation of murder, in the aggregate and over time. ...

"In the archives, murders are easier to count than other crimes. Rapes go unreported, thefts can be hidden, adultery isn't necessarily actionable, but murder will nearly always out. Murders enter the historical record through coroners' inquests, court transcripts, parish ledgers, and even tombstones. ... The number of uncounted murders, known as the 'dark figure,' is thought to be quite small. Given enough archival research, historians can conceivably count, with fair accuracy, the frequency with which people of earlier eras killed one another, with this caveat: the farther back you go in time—and the documentary trail doesn't go back much farther than 1300—the more fragmentary the record and the bigger the dark figure. ...

"In Europe, homicide rates, conventionally represented as the number of murder victims per hundred thousand people in the population per year, have been falling for centuries. ... In feuding medieval Europe, the murder rate hovered around thirty-five. Duels replaced feuds. Duels are more mannered; they also have a lower body count. By 1500, the murder rate in Western Europe had fallen to about twenty. Courts had replaced duels. By 1700, the murder rate had dropped to five. Today that rate is generally well below two, where it has held steady with minor fluctuations, for the past century.

"In the United States, the picture could hardly be more different. The American homicide rate has been higher than Europe's from the start, and higher at just about every stage since. It has also fluctuated, sometimes wildly. During the Colonial period the homicide rate fell but in the nineteenth century, while Europe's kept sinking, the U.S. rate went up and up. In the twentieth century, the rate in the United States dropped to about five during the years following the Second World War, but then rose, reaching about eleven in 1991. It has since fallen once again, to just above five, a rate that is, nevertheless, twice that of any other affluent democracy. ...

"2.3 million people are currently behind bars in the United States. That works out to nearly one in every hundred adults, the highest rate anywhere in the world, and four times the world average. ...

"[Roth theorizes] that four factors correlate with the homicide rate: faith that government is stable and capable of enforcing just laws; trust in the integrity of legitimately elected officials; solidarity among social groups based on race religion or political affiliation; and confidence that the social hierarchy allows for respect to be earned without recourse to violence. When and where people hold these sentiments the homicide rate is low when and where they don't it is high"


Jill Lepore


"Rap Sheet"


The New Yorker


November 9, 2009


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