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August 31, 2004 - The Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Crime Facts A Downer For The Doomsayers

By Dan Gardner

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

For the most part, cultural pessimists -- the uber-conservatives who gravely declare that Western civilization has slipped into decadence and will shortly collapse before the barbarian hordes if the stalwart paladin who occupies the White House loses the coming election -- like to talk in terms of high abstraction that does not sully itself with mere evidence. But press them for empirical proof that we are going to hell in a handbasket, and they're likely to mention crime trends.

Not recent trends, mind you. Cultural pessimists like to think in grander historical terms than that. And besides, crime has fallen in the last 12 years, which is a real downer for doomsayers.

Instead, they point to the explosion in crime across the Western world since the early 1960s, and they note (if they acknowledge it at all) that despite the drop of the last 12 years, crime is still worse than it was in the 1950s.

That's proof, they say, that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s were the beginning of the end -- the moment when we lapsed into decadence.

It's tempting to dismiss the pessimists by noting that an earlier generation of grumps marked the 1920s as the moment the West slid into decadence. And a generation before them, the pessimists were saying it was the 1890s. And so on. In fact, there hasn't been a generation in the last 500 years in which some learned fellow wasn't crying that the end is nigh. If we are indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it's been a very long ride.

But a more empirical rebuttal is in order. And thanks to historians who study crime, that's now possible.

For the last 30 years, but particularly in the last decade, historians have been scouring archives all over Europe, gleaning bits and pieces of evidence that allow them to calculate historical crime rates. Manuel Eisner, a University of Cambridge criminologist, pulled together dozens of these studies and analysed them in a landmark essay published recently in "Crime and Justice: A Review of Research" (University of Chicago Press).

One of the earliest and most influential of the studies focused on London. Homicides were measured for the same reason criminologists use homicides as the best bellwether of violent crime today: It's the most serious crime so it's certain to be recorded if discovered and it's likely to be discovered because it always involves a body turned up or a person gone missing.

Researchers were able to chart London's murder rate all the way from mid-13th century to today. What they found was a trend as clear as it is astonishing. Some 750 years ago, the city's murder rate was roughly 20 per 100,000 people -- about the level of a tough American inner city today -- but it soon began to drop. By 1600, it was 10 per 100,000. By the mid-20th century, it was one per 100,000 -- or one-20th what it had been seven centuries before.

Similar work done in Belgium, Holland, Finland and elsewhere uncovered even more dramatic drops in violence. When Eisner drew all the research together, he found the western European murder rate had been highest in the 15th century -- a frightening 41 murders per 100,000 people. By the 18th century, it had dropped to 3.2. In the 19th century, it was 2.6. By the 1950s, it was less than one.

This puts the increase in crime from the early 1960s to the early 1990s -- when violent crime peaked -- in a whole new light. Over that time, the murder rate in England, for example, went from 0.6 to 1.4. The figures are roughly the same elsewhere in western Europe. (Canadian numbers are similar, and while the American figures are much higher, the trend is the same).

So if you chart all the data from the 13th century to today, the chart is covered by a long, dramatically dropping line and then, near the end, there is a tiny up-tick which has already stopped rising.

Where this will go in the future is anyone's guess but past experience is encouraging. That's because the 600-year decline in violence was not a steady thing.

There were many periods, some lasting several decades, in which murder rates rose rapidly before the long-term decline resumed. In the first quarter of the 19th century, for example, the homicide rate in England doubled. But then it began to drop again -- so rapidly, in fact, that one hundred years later it was two-thirds lower. It may well be that the recent crime rise will come to be seen as a similar hiccup in the long-term trend.

Seen as a whole, the research presents not the slightest evidence of a civilization disintegrating. To the contrary, it is a portrait of a civilization emerging. This is bad news for the cultural Cassandras, who will have to return to the plane of high abstraction to sustain their fantasies of decline, but it's rather nice for the rest of us.

Dan Gardner is a Citizen senior writer.

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