One year later, he upped the ante: “I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” But General Dempsey is hardly alone. Dire warnings about our uniquely dangerous world are ubiquitous. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in early 2014 that he had “not experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”
This seems to be an opinion shared by many. We are constantly bombarded by images of violence in the media. We are warned about threats by politicians and other actors on the political stage. Do these media reports and political narratives have a basis in fact? Is the hypothesis that the world is a more violent and dangerous place in fact correct?
Fortunately the data is available to analyze the current state of violence in the world. The results of the analysis is that the world is unequivocally less violent today than at any time in history. This may be surprising and difficult to believe, but the facts are clear.
Reason Magazine published an interview with Steven Pinker author of the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The complete interview can be viewed at this link:
The message delivered in this interview is:
You are less likely to die a violent death today than at any other time in human history. In fact, violence has been declining for centuries.
Steven Pinker wrote an article titled The World Is Not Falling Apart that was published in Slate Magazine and can be read at this link:
Some of the highlights of this article are:
- 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.
- As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders 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.
- 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?
It is important to note that these studies include violence of all types, not just wars and terrorist acts. The facts are very clear that even violent crime is less prevalent today. The following Reuters article describes the most recent FBI "annual Crime in the United States report":
According to the FBI the United States had an estimated 1.16 million violent crimes last year, the lowest number since 1.09 million were recorded in 1978. All types of violent crimes were lower, with murder and non-negligent manslaughter off 4.4 percent to 14,196, the lowest figure since 1968. Rape was down 6.3 percent and robbery fell 2.8
Finally for those who prefer visual data Max Roser has a very interesting website Our World in Data
There is a visual presentation about the history of world violence at this webpage:
Christopher A. Preble of the Cato Institute discusses the consequences of the over estimation of dangers in a recent policy report:
This policy report reaches these conclusions:
- Individual liberty is often threatened during periods of heightened fear and anxiety, a fact that informed the very structure of the U.S. government. James Madison, in making the case for restraining the new government’s war-making powers, warned the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: “The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”
- He went on: “Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.” A decade later, Madison returned to this theme in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Madison knew that there was already some demand for a standing military, and that a few would use fear of foreign threats to whip up public sentiment in favor of a more powerful state. Indeed, Madison postulated “a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad.”
- Others since then have stumbled upon similar ideas about popular notions of threats, and of how the fear of threats has been used to grow the power of government. For example, the noted writer, social critic and satirist H.L. Mencken declared “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
- Madison and Mencken’s warnings remain relevant today. Recall how in November 2008 incoming Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called for swift government action to deal with what he said was an urgent threat. “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste,” Emanuel explained in an interview, “it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”
- While Emanuel was talking about an economic crisis, an increasingly powerful state can be used in many different ways, regardless of whether it was precipitated by fears of foreign or domestic threats. The same sorts of powers that allowed the Justice Department to go after suspected terrorists allowed the IRS to harass suspected tea partiers.