The Myth of the Violent America

The United States has long had a reputation for being a violent society. Our imagination of the gun-slinging outlaws in the Wild West was later replaced with the image of crack-addicts and gangs roaming the streets. Countless Hollywood blockbusters have fueled this perception, both in the US and globally, by portraying bank robberies, assassinations, police shoot-outs and brutal gang wars as normal features of the American society. There is no denial that America is far more violent than most, if not all, other western countries. Despite having a population only 10 times larger, the US has 65 times more murders by firearms than Canada and 57 times more prisoners, while only employing 11 times more police officers. The obsession over gun ownership in the US largely comes from the idea that citizens have a real need to protect themselves from violent criminals, as well as being a product of traditional mistrusts towards federal authorities in Washington.

What most of us have however failed to realize is that Americans have been committing fever and fever crimes since the late 1980s.  Violent crimes even fell by more than 5% after the economic recession in 2008, despite all conventional wisdom predicting that criminality will increase when people becomes unemployed. Very few foresaw this development; in fact, two decades ago criminologists and conservative politicians were instead predicting a future where super-predators, “kids that have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future”, would rule the street and force terrorized citizens to retreat to their gated communities. After the killing of 12 students and a teacher at the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, it was often argued that video games were further contributing to this problem by rewarding kids for violent behavior and making them lose touch with reality.

It is nothing new that we are scared of the new generations. Socrates himself claimed that young people «have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders”. A key reason for the misperception in the US is also because of the way media works:  we are generally far more interested in stories that deal with the darker aspects of human nature, so sex and violence sells better than reports on how the society is improving. Studies show that TV-news particular over-report on violent stories, which influence the perception that our neighborhoods are becoming more dangerous year by year.

New York is a key example on how crime in the US has changed. In 1991, the city had 2 245 homicides; last year there were a record-low 333 murders. Tougher policing under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are often praised as the main reason for this development. Another key issue is likely the stabilization of the crack cocaine market; in the 1980s New York suffered massively as street gangs fought to establish their territories when this new and lucrative drug was introduced. Violent crime and street gangs remain a significant problem today across the US, but it is not nearly as commonplace as most of have been led to believe.

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  1. Even with these decreases, we are STILL 400 times more violent than Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and my favorite the REPUBLIC of Ireland.

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