America’s status as one of the least homicidal places on earth did not last. In the middle of the 19th century the murder rate started going up, and by the end of the century the modern pattern was set. From 1918 to the present America’s homicide rate has fluctuated between six and nine murders per 100,000 adults per year.
The contrast betwen the U.S. and the rest of the world’s affluent democracies is startling. Nearby Canada has had only one-quarter of America’s per capita killings since World War II; next in line is Australia, then Italy, then ten more nations, and then England, the Netherlands and Ireland, which have had approximately one-tenth America’s murder rate in the past 65 years. Even if one believes, as the media apparently do, that the only murders worth noting are those of Americans of European descent””who are actually “the least likely victims of homicide”””the U.S. remains “two and a half to eight times more homicidal than any other affluent democracy.”
Roth is not simply seeking to describe. He also wants to explain. In the book’s introduction he makes a convincing case that while standard (and wildly different) liberal and conservative explanations of America’s homicidal nature””endemic poverty, weak policing, alcohol and drug abuse, easy access to guns, a persistent frontier mentality, a highly patriarchal culture, an obsession with honor, the failure of “civilization” to take hold in America, the legacy of slavery””tell us something about the patterns of murder, they fail to do what historians must do: explain change over time. How did it come about that, America’s colonial and early Republic history notwithstanding, “two-thirds of the world’s people [now] live in nations that are less homicidal than the United States”?
–William Trollinger Jr., in a review of Randolph Roth’s new book “American Homicide”, Christian Century, December 28, 2010, page 26