Holiday Violence

By: Mormon Heretic
December 17, 2012

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?

Do you think violence is going down?

View Results

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What's the best way to curb school/workplace/domestic violence?

  • Better Gun Control (32%, 8 Votes)
  • Teach better coping skills (28%, 7 Votes)
  • Everyone should carry a weapon (20%, 5 Votes)
  • Other (I'll fill in my answer below) (12%, 3 Votes)
  • Armed Guards in School/Workplaces (8%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 25

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10 Responses to Holiday Violence

  1. Hedgehog on December 17, 2012 at 2:27 AM

    Is violence going down?
    It has been, definitely. I think perceptions of violence in society are manipulated by the media, but still whether violence is decreasing for anyone individual will depend very much on where in the world they live. Given current instabilities I wouldn’t like to bet on whether the overall downward trend will be continuing in the short-term at least.
    The best way to curb violence? Better coping skills, anger management, and for people to feel like they have some control over what is happening to them.

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  2. Will on December 17, 2012 at 3:33 AM

    To me all of this is related to the spirit of God, which does not always dwell with man. The pre-Adam hunter-gather people were not human. The significance of Adam is that he was the first being to have the “breath of life” into him. To me this is when the spirit children of God started entering into these humanoid bodies. Eve was next and there off spring created mankind. Some argue that one of the main reasons for the flood was to wipe out all of the evil defendants of Adam AND all of the humanoids that still live on the earth.

    My point is that a good chunck of these hunter gathers were not human. They were like Apes or other primates, seperated from mankind because they were NOT children of God. Killing them, or them killing each other is not murder as murder only applies to killing a child of God. This is why it is ok to kill a cow or chicken or even an ape for that matter as long as one follows the counsel of President Kimball.

    Likewise the commonality of all of these serial killers is that they have lost thier souls. They have so diminished the light of Christ inside themselves, they to are no longer human. The difference between them and the humanoids is that these killers are murders and will be accountable before God.

    There isn’t a pit deep enough for someone that would open fire on a group of 6 year olds. Pure evil.

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  3. Will on December 17, 2012 at 3:37 AM

    Sorry for the typos, it’s been a long day and I’m typing on an iPhone.
    Sic. Their and decedents

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  4. hawkgrrrl on December 17, 2012 at 3:53 AM

    Most of the acts of genocide in the last century were carried out secretly and only discovered later. One factor with historical violence, including in the Bible, is that it is prone to be misreported for various reasons. People exaggerate their claims to intimidate outsiders. People understate their atrocities or overstate the atrocities of their aggressors. There are complexities like that, and the older the history (and fewer the sources), the harder to ascertain the facts. Reports of the rape of Nanjing vary greatly, and it was less than a hundred years ago.

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  5. Usually a lurker on December 17, 2012 at 6:41 AM

    I voted “other” for “the best way to curb”. I don’t think there’s an effective way to protect against future episodes. A determined killer can usually find a way around the obstacles.

    I think the best thing we can do is improve our response to mental illness. Perhaps more and better facilities? A quicker and more extreme response to perceived mental instability? I can see a huge danger in being too quick to lock someone up, especially on hearsay evidence, but maybe we’ve gone too far to the other side.

    I think there is a greater awareness of the danger since Columbine. I have in the past few years heard of several murderous plots that were foiled by warnings from those who knew the perpetrators. So I think we are making progress, yes, definitely.

    I go back and forth on gun laws. I generally lean toward thinking that the bad guys will still have guns even if the laws are stricter, but I personally have no desire to own a gun.

    I do think in general the world is becoming less wicked, but some days it seems one step forward two steps back.

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  6. el oso on December 17, 2012 at 7:00 PM

    I hope that no one takes seriously that any possible gun control law could have prevented the Newtown massacre. With no guns available the criminal could have taken a machete to school and killed the same number of people. The politicians and talking heads who spout this should be dismissed as fools.
    That does not mean that any discussion of gun control laws is pointless, but if you are trying to solve a problem with a proposed solution that obviously will not work or would not have worked, then you are not really trying to solve the problem.

    As to the decline in overall violence in the world, I agree. The world is less violent because the rule of law has become slightly more common. The USA and other first world powers have muddled through with overall beneficial results since WWII.

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  7. hawkgrrrl on December 17, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    el oso – your comment about the machete is interesting since a simultaneous attack on school children took place in China where private gun ownership is outlawed. Rather than 26 deaths in 3 mins as in Newtown, there were 22 children injured (this was a knife attack), some of them seriously, but no fatalities.

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  8. el oso on December 18, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    I was thinking about the China attack among other situations when I wrote my comment. A small amount of training, possibly gained while clearing brush or blazing a hiking trail, is all that the perp would need to be just as unstoppable in Newtown and probably just as lethal.
    One serious machete blow would be a mortal wound to the children, but maybe some of the adults could have survived.
    There has been at least one school massacre in the US that was worse than Newtown and did not involve guns (or knives) at all.

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  9. FireTag on December 18, 2012 at 4:55 PM


    I generally concur with the idea that over long time frames we are making progress as a species overall, but I also agree with some of the other comments that where you live on shorter time scales matter a lot. For example, Europe and North America in the latter half of the 2oth Century is probably pretty atypical of the state of violence in the rest of the world. Empires and more developed forms of society can be very good at reducing violence in their cores by expelling to their periphery, so if you measure data in the core, you’ll get a misleading picture.

    Indeed, in the decades chart, I think there is no coincidence in the rise of violence and subsequent fall at the end of the Not-At-All-Cold War. You are seeing a single war between two empires, Western and Soviet, that lasted over forty years after they united to destroy a third Nazi Empire. So the length of the war makes it seem less intense than it was.

    So, on scales of a generation, you can have huge swings up and down without contradicting your point about longer term progress.

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  10. Douglas on December 25, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    In light of posts #6 – #8: Agreed that “gun control”, at least the sweeping solutions proposed by “gun-grabbing” politicians before the Federal Government in light of the Newton, CT, tragedy, will only publish the peaceful and law-abiding and won’t likely avert further senseless acts of violence.
    There is statistical evidence, if one merely examines raw crime reporting figures, and, sadly, body counts, that violent crimes are actually DOWN, at least in the US. Due to the “Global Village”, we’re made aware of outrages like the Newton, CT tragedy, often in real time! Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? So certainly it’s as much a perception thing as any statistical reality. What is of greater concern is the greater hysteria on the part of the American public in light of tragedies. We tend to run and shout about like recently beheaded poultry, and in most cases should be taken about as seriously. What is sad also is how easily we Americans, supposedly a well-educated and informed people, let ourselves be manipulated by the media and politicians every time some outrage occurs. The Apostle Paul put it well when he wrote his second epistle to Timothy: “Ever learning, and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7).
    The only way to curb violence that works is one that can’t, by nature, be compelled…to change the hearts of men. People who have been taught the Gospel and have received the Savior in their hearts are far less likely to do violence in word and/or deed (IV Nephi 17-18). Do that, and the debate about political matters (like gun control) become moot.

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