It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Charlie Hebdo, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops — who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold?
As troubling as the recent headlines have been, these lamentations need a second look. It’s hard to believe we are in greater danger today than we were during the two world wars, or during other perils such as the periodic nuclear confrontations during the Cold War, the numerous conflicts in Africa and Asia that each claimed millions of lives, or the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that threatened to choke the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and cripple the world’s economy.
Since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, people who follow the news will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.
We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness. Entropy, pathogens and human folly are a backdrop to life, and it is statistically certain that the lurking disasters will not space themselves evenly in time but will frequently overlap. To read significance into these clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking, a world of evil eyes and cosmic conspiracies.
Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day, ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And as the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks.
The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? As Bill Clinton likes to say, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.
Adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it. Let’s examine the major categories in turn.
Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars. And in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s, which flattened out at the start of the new century, resumed in 2006, and, defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present.
Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. Global averages, to be sure, conceal many regions with horrific rates of killing, particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. But even in those hot zones, it’s easy for the headlines to mislead. The gory drug-fueled killings in parts of Mexico, for example, can create an impression that the country has spiraled into Hobbesian lawlessness. But the trend line belies the impression in two ways.
One is that the 21st-century spike has not undone a massive reduction in homicide that Mexico has enjoyed since 1940, comparable to the reductions that Europe and the United States underwent in earlier centuries. The other is that what goes up often comes down. The rate of Mexican homicide has declined in each of the past two years (including an almost 90 percent drop in Juárez from 2010 to 2012), and many other notoriously dangerous regions have experienced significant turnarounds, including Bogotá, Colombia (a fivefold decline in two decades), Medellín, Colombia (down 85 percent in two decades), São Paolo (down 70 percent in a decade), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (an almost two-thirds reduction in four years), Russia (down 46 percent in six years), and South Africa (a halving from 1995 to 2011). Many criminologists believe that a reduction of global violence by 50 percent in the next three decades is a feasible target for the next round of Millennium Development Goals.
Violence against women
The intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses, have suggested to many pundits that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women. But the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization surveys (which circumvent the problem of underreporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Far too many of these horrendous crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women is not futile moralizing but has brought about measurable progress — and that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still.
Violence against children
A similar story can be told about children. The incessant media reports of school shootings, abductions, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, date rape and sexual and physical abuse make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise: Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past. In a review of the literature on violence against children in the United States published in 2014, the sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported, “Of 50 trends in exposure examined, there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimization, bullying and sexual victimization.”
Democracy has proved to be more robust than its eulogizers realize. A majority of the world’s countries today are democratic, and not just the wealthy monocultures of Europe, North America and East Asia. Governments that are more democratic than not (scoring 6 or higher on the Polity IV Project’s scale from minus 10 to 10) are entrenched (albeit with nerve-wracking ups and downs) in most of Latin America, in floridly multiethnic India, in Islamic Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, and in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Even the autocracies of Russia and China, which show few signs of liberalizing anytime soon, are incomparably less repressive than the regimes of Stalin, Brezhnev and Mao.
Genocide and other mass killings of civilians
The recent atrocities against non-Islamic minorities at the hands of ISIS, together with the ongoing killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq and central Africa, have fed a narrative in which the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust and genocides continue unabated.
But by any standard, the world is nowhere near as genocidal as it was during its peak in the 1940s, when Nazi, Soviet and Japanese mass murders, together with the targeting of civilians by all sides in World War II, resulted in a civilian death rate in the vicinity of 350 per 100,000 per year. Stalin and Mao kept the global rate between 75 and 150 through the early 1960s, and it has been falling ever since, though punctuated by spikes of dying in Biafra (1966-1970, 200,000 deaths), Sudan (1983-2002, 1 million), Afghanistan (1978-2002, 1 million), Indonesia (1965-1966, 500,000), Angola (1975-2002, 1 million), Rwanda (1994, 500,000), and Bosnia (1992-1995, 200,000). (All of these estimates are from the Center for Systemic Peace.)
These numbers must be kept in mind when we read of the current horrors in Iraq (2003-2014, 150,000 deaths) and Syria (2011-2014, 150,000) and interpret them as signs of a dark new era. Nor, tragically, are the beheadings and crucifixions of the Islamic State historically unusual. Many postwar genocides were accompanied by splurges of ghastly torture and mutilation. The main difference is that they were not broadcast on social media.
After a steady rise during the Cold War until 1992, the proportion of states perpetrating or enabling mass killings of civilians has plummeted, though with a small recent bounce. (See accompanying story.)
The number of civilians killed in these massacres has also dropped. Reliable data, collected by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, or UCDP, exist only for the past 25 years, and this period is so dominated by the Rwandan genocide that an ordinary graph looks like a tall spike poking through a wrinkled carpet. But when we squish the graph by using a logarithmic scale, we see that by 2013 the rate of civilian killing had fallen by an order of magnitude since the mid 1990s, and by two orders of magnitude since Rwanda.
The world’s civilians are several thousand times less likely to be targeted today than they were 70 years ago.
Researchers who track war and peace distinguish “armed conflicts,” which kill as few as 25 soldiers and civilians caught in the line of fire in a year, from “wars,” which kill more than a thousand. They also distinguish “interstate” conflicts, which pit the armed forces of two or more states against each other, from “intrastate” or “civil” conflicts, which pit a state against an insurgency or separatist force, sometimes with the armed intervention of an external state.
In a historically unprecedented development, the number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945, and the most destructive kind of war, in which great powers or developed states fight each other, has vanished altogether. (The last one was the Korean War.) Today the world rarely sees a major naval battle, or masses of tanks and heavy artillery shelling each other across a battlefield.
The end of the Cold War also saw a steep reduction in the number of armed conflicts of all kinds, including civil wars.
The world is not falling apart
The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable — homicide, rape, battering, child abuse — have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states — by far the most destructive of all conflicts — are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it.
We have been told of impending doom before: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a line of dominoes in Southeast Asia, revanchism in a reunified Germany, a rising sun in Japan, cities overrun by teenage superpredators, a coming anarchy that would fracture the major nation-states, and weekly 9/11-scale attacks that would pose an existential threat to civilization.
Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been” — even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?
Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from “experts” with interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists.
There is a better way to understand the world. Commentators can brush up their history — not by rummaging through Bartlett’s for a quote from Clausewitz, but by recounting events of the recent past that put events of the present in an intelligible context. And they could consult the analyses of quantitative data sets on violence that are now just a few clicks away.
An evidence-based mindset would bring many benefits. It would calibrate our national and international responses to the magnitude of the dangers that face us. It would limit the influence of terrorists, school shooters, decapitation cinematographers and other violence impresarios. It might even dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” Andrew Mack is a fellow at the One Earth Future Foundation and director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University.