It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Myanmar, Ebola – who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the centre cannot hold? But as troubling as the headlines have been, they deserve a second look. It’s hard to believe that we are in greater danger today than we were during the two world wars, the nuclear confrontations of 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 cripple the entire global economy.
So how can we get less hyperbolic about the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out” or a city that has not been bombed or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will be incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, we will always perceive that we live in dangerous times.
We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness. Entropy, pathogens, and human folly are always present in our lives, and it’s statistically certain that disasters will frequently overlap with one another rather than space themselves evenly in time. But to read significance into any such clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking and cosmic conspiracies.
Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some types of violence, like shooting rampages and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but, outside of war zones, kill relatively few. Each day in the US, for instance, ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many as the number who died in the infamous Sandy Hook school massacre.
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 former US president Bill Clinton likes to say, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” When we do, we can see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news watcher would guess.
Worldwide, about five to ten times as many people die in standard homicides as die in wars, and in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been falling. The American crime decline of the 1990s, which plateaued at the start of this century, resumed in 2006; defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, it continued during the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 and through the present.
England, Canada, and most other industrialised countries have also seen homicide rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have shown a decline in the past 15 years. Although numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012.
The global average, to be sure, conceals many regions with horrific rates of killing, particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. But even in those hot zones, it is easy for headlines to mislead. For example, the gory, drug-fuelled killings in parts of Mexico can create an impression that the entire country has spiralled into lawlessness, but two factors can help dispel that notion. One is that the 21st-century spike has not undone the massive reduction in homicide that Mexico has enjoyed since 1940. The other is that what goes up often comes down. The rate of Mexican homicide has declined in each of the past two years, and many other notoriously dangerous regions have experienced significant turnarounds, including Bogotá, Colombia (down 85% in two decades), São Paolo (down 70% in a decade), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (an almost two-thirds reduction in four years), Russia (down 46% in six years), and South Africa (a halving from 1995 to 2011). Many criminologists believe that a worldwide reduction in homicide by 50% in the next three decades is a feasible target for the upcoming round of Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations.
Violence Against Women
Intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses has suggested to some observers that we are witnessing a surge of violence against women. But victimisation surveys such as those conducted by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (which circumvent the problem of under-reporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been declining for decades, and they’re 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 moralising but has brought about measurable progress – and can lead to greater progress still.
In 1993 the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and polling data show widespread support for women’s rights, even in countries with the most benighted practices. Many countries have implemented laws and public awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honour killings, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities. Though some of these measures are toothless, and the effectiveness of others has yet to be established, there are grounds for optimism over the long term. Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, duelling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.
Violence Against Children
Similarly, news reports on abductions, cyberbullying, and sexual and physical abuse can make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise. In a recent review of the literature on violence against children in the US, sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported that “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 victimisation, bullying, and sexual victimisation.” Similar trends can be seen elsewhere, and international declarations have made the reduction of violence against children into a global issue.
Genocide and Other Mass Killings of Civilians
The recent atrocities committed by ISIS, together with the ongoing killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq, and central Africa, have fed a terrifying narrative in which the world has apparently learned nothing from past genocides. But even the most horrific events of the present must be put into historical perspective.
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 an annual civilian death rate of 350 deaths per 100,000 people. 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 in Biafra (1966–1970; 200,000 deaths), Sudan (1983–2002; one million), Afghanistan (1978–2002; one million), Indonesia (1965–1966; 500,000), Angola (1975–2002; one million), Rwanda (1994; 500,000), and Bosnia (1992–1995; 200,000). These numbers must be kept in mind when we read of 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.
The trend lines for genocide and other civilian killings, fortunately, point sharply downward. Although comparisons to the cruder data of previous decades are iffy, the numbers suggest the rate of civilian killings has dropped by about three orders of magnitude since the decade after World War II and by four orders of magnitude since the war itself. In other words, 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 fight one another – has vanished altogether.
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 saw a steep reduction in the number of armed conflicts of all kinds, including civil wars, and recent events have not reversed this trend. In 2013, there were 33 state-based armed conflicts in the world, a number that falls within the range of the past dozen years and well below the high of 52 that occurred shortly after the end of the Cold War. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program has noted that 2013 saw the signing of six peace agreements, two more than in the previous year.
But another recent development in wars is less positive: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010 to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Four new wars have broken out since January 2014, leading to a total of 11.
The worldwide rate of battle deaths through 2013 has also risen, mostly because of the Syrian civil war. Even so, this increase must be kept in perspective. While it has undone the progress of the past dozen years, the rates are still well below those of the 1990s and nowhere near the levels of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s.
Look For the Hope, Not the Hype
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 civilisation.
Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been” – even as a greater and greater majority of humanity live in peace and die 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 vested interests in maximising the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.
There is a better way to understand the world. Commentators can brush up their history by recounting the events of the recent past that put the events of the present in an intelligible context. And they could consult datasets on violence that are now just a few clicks away.
An evidence-based mindset on the state of the world 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.