Saturday, October 10, 2009

The perception of violence

Living in Europe, I'm very familiar with the perception that America is violent. So I found this article interesting. I was going to post it a few months ago, but I got sidetracked and forgot about it. Here are the stats they report on violent crimes per 100,000 residents, focusing primarily on Western Europe (it isn't exhaustive):

UK: 2034
Austria: 1677
South Africa: 1609
Sweden: 1123
Belgium: 1006
Canada: 935
Finland: 738
Netherlands: 676
Luxembourg: 575
France: 504
USA: 466
So, if these numbers are correct, the United States has a violent crime rate lower than a fourth of Great Britain's, lower than half of Belgium's (where I live), and almost exactly half of Canada's.

Two caveats: 1) I want to know how each of these countries defines "violent crime" before accepting these statistics. I wouldn't be surprised if the definitions varied significantly from country to country. I've heard that the USA has a higher murder rate than Canada, so it would be very unusual if Canada has an overall rate of violent crime that's double that of the States. 2) To accept these statistics would be to trust a) government and b) the popular press. I'm a little suspicious.

If these numbers are correct, though, I can think of several causes for the (alleged) misperception that America is more violent: 1) America has a population of over 300 million people, so it has a larger number of violent crimes than countries with significantly smaller populations. But this is obviously not a fair measure of how violent America is, because all of these other countries have (according to the article) a higher rate of violent crime. If their populations were equal to America's, their number of violent crimes would be much higher. 2) It may be (I really have no idea) that America has a higher rate of particular types of violent crimes that most people consider the most violent. So maybe the US has a higher rate of murder, but a lower rate of armed robbery. However, this is just speculation on my part. 3) America is founded on the complete rejection of the proverb "Don't air your dirty laundry in public." When something bad happens in the States, I hear about it over here. When something comparably bad happens over here, it generally does not receive as much attention. Not even close. 4) Movies, TV, and the mainstream media portray the US as extremely violent, and for many non-Americans, these media are their only exposure to the US. 5) Simple, pure, unadulterated anti-Americanism.


Humphrey said...

I think the stats are skewed because of the way violent crimes are reported. The U.S is more violent than Europe if the all the states are counted as a whole; however I think it is silly to do so (One wouldn't for example, speak of the 'European murder rate'). Actually if you look at the violence it is regional and highly localised. To greater and lesser extents U.S cities were abandoned during de-industrialisation and suburbanisation and ethnic minorities were confined to ghettos where a culture of violence emerged. Hence cities such as Washington DC, New Orleans and Detroit have high crime rates; however their more wealthy suburbs have very low crime. In areas like New England, crime is comparable to Europe and in some parts even lower. In parts of the south, it is out of control, but nowhere near what it is in South Africa.

fboley said...

Nah there's a lot more crime in the UK than in the US. Yeah, you're more likely to be mugged in Detroit than in Grosse Pointe, but still. I for example had 6 cars stolen in 10 years in the UK, most of them in a rural setting. Binge drinking is more endemic in the UK for whatever reason, and that has an effect. Of course, we all know that when a good guy gets drunk and goes mad in the US, he is more effective, as he has a hunting rifle at his disposal, but the bad guys all over the world all have automatics.

I am sorry but Humphrey is mistaken. I have seen epidemiological studies which bear out the general gist of your story, and it is irrelevant that there re spikes of violence in big cities.

I won't rise to the bait of "minorities were confined to ghettos".

Love the blog!

Humphrey said...

Ok, I'll admit that 'confined to ghettos' is the wrong choice of words, and yes, there is a higher rate of burglary in the UK (when I go to the U.S I'm shocked to find everyone leaves their front doors open). But I'm pretty sure that your homicide rate is higher.

That said, I am more than happy to be proved wrong (not least since I am moving to the U.S in a years time). Could you send me a link to those studies?

Anonymous said...

OK I can't find or remembe where to find the study or studies on crime rates. Here is another interesting website: One of the quotes is "The US is 66 times more likely to prosecute than France", eh bien. The other point they make is that crime rates also reflect the citizenry's willingness to report, and naturally the converse.