Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Murder, Inc.

Jill Lepore in The New Yorker has a very illuminating article on why the US has the number one murder rate in the industrialized world. We have almost 4 times the murder rate of France and the UK and 6 times that of Germany.
Why is there so much violence in the US?
Apparently, among other things, because we have a weak government. According to some historians, democracy arrived too soon to these shores, at a time when our incipient society was not ready for it. Europe had many centuries to grow into democracy and to refine its social institutions. We didn't, and hence the mistrust of government that has always been a part of the culture here. Hmmm.
Historians and anthropologists claim that the human murder rate has gone down through the ages, as man changed from a culture of honor to a culture of dignity.
This important distinction is worth noting, as this change accounts for civilization. For instance, right now, the Western world, supposedly deeply invested in a culture of dignity (human rights, democracy, etc) is fighting an ideological and physical war against those who still believe in a culture of honor, be it islamofascists or fundamentalists of all stripes and religious persuasions. All fundamentalists are still invested in a culture of honor (revenge, female oppression, generalized primitivism).
Now, the overwhelming majority of murderers are men. The murder rate always goes down after a war, when apparently the appetite for destruction is sated, at least for a while. People are trying to understand the reasons for such a high murder rate in the US, and why murder rates go up or down.
A great chunk of the blame obviously lies in the fact that this is the only country on Earth where some people believe it is a human right to bear arms. Anywhere else, this is sheer absurdity. Other societies have consented to disarm and to agree that only certain institutions for the public safety are allowed to use arms, like the police and the army. But Americans having arms is not the only cause for murder. Some historians claim that it is lack of faith in government which lets loose the murder rate. In which case, this would explain why we are so trigger happy over here. People are deeply cynical and skeptical of government and with good reason. But this is true in Mexico or Argentina for instance, and I doubt these countries have the murder rate we do.
...an article called “Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism,” which hypothesized that four factors accounted for the centuries-long differences between American and European homicide rates: mobility, federalism, slavery, and tolerance. Mobility breaks social ties; federalism is a weak form of government; slavery not only rationalized a culture of violence among white Southerners (where the murder rate has been disproportionately high, as it has, and remains, in many of the so-called law-and-order states) but also infected American culture; and American judges and juries have historically proved less willing than their European counterparts to convict murderers, tolerating, among other crimes, racial murders and killings by jealous spouses.
To judge from the political debacles we have witnessed since Obama became president, and the disgrace that was the Bush administration it is as clear as day that indeed, even though we may believe in the fantasy that we are the most powerful country on Earth, this is not because we have a strong government. Quite the contrary. We have a weak, corrupt, vulnerable political system that is prey to powerful business interests. Federalism, which is great in many ways, (as in the dynamics of lack of crippling centralization), is very bad on others, like lack of a national consensus on basic rights and laws. The parties are pathetic. Nobody really has any real power. Just look at Congress. So is this why people feel compelled to kill their fellow Americans?
The article also points out that we are the society that incarcerates the most people (most of them black or brown) and the only industrialized nation that still has the death penalty. As in, this kind of punishment does not bring the murder rate down. It pushes it up.
Excellent food for thought.

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