Are we in moral decline?

Last week’s massacre in Colorado properly touched a raw nerve in the body politic. Each death was a tragedy of infinite proportions and each wound brings a world of pain to the victims, physical and psychological, the scars of which may well remain forever.

At the height of our outrage and the depth of our grief, a number of commentators offered analyses lacking any basis in fact, thereby undermining our ability to formulate a considered response to such tragedies. I am not exploring issues like gun safety laws or our mental health system here, but rather something more fundamental.

Have we become a more violent society? 

Many of those who attempted to dissect the violence in Aurora responded in the affirmative to that question, suggesting such tragedies were becoming more and more frequent. Fortunately, they’re wrong. That fact affords no comfort to the victims in Colorado, but it is a fact the country as a whole should understand. We as a nation, and as a global society, are less violent than we were 30 years ago, and much less violent than we were 100, 200 and 500 years ago. 

Historians and criminologists have known this for quite a while, and the data are clear. In 1962, there were 4.6 murders for every 100,000 Americans. By 1980, that number more than doubled, to 10.2 homicides per 100,000. However, in 2010, the murder rate was just 4.8, less than half of what it was 30 years earlier and the lowest level recorded since 1963. 

For the suspicious among you, it’s no statistical fluke. America’s murder rate has declined rather consistently over the last 20 years. While the experience of individual cities has varied, the situation in the nation’s capital is instructive. In 1991, 479 people were killed in what was then a city of 500,000. Last year, 108 were murdered in a Washington that had grown to over 600,000 inhabitants — 108 too many, of course, but objectively, far fewer than 20 years ago.

A longer view of history suggests that the high we reached in the ’80s was matched in the 1920s and early ’30s, after which it fell to a low point in the late ’50s until rising again as we moved into the ’80s, before beginning a drop that has persisted until today.

Of course, American history didn’t begin in 1900 either. Though the data are much mushier, criminologists estimate that the homicide rate on our shores today is about one-sixth of what it was in 1700 and one-quarter what it was in 1850, with a general downward trend since 1700.

That trend is hardly unique to America, and indeed the declines are even sharper elsewhere. In England, the murder rate declined from about 24 per 100,000 in the 14th century to 1.2 today. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the rate fell from a whopping 45 homicides per 100,000 population in the 15th century to less than 1 today.

Scholars debate the cause of these declines endlessly, and the theories they advance are many — from improved policing to “civilizing tendencies” to “widening moral circles,” stronger central governments and even declining levels of lead in children’s bodies and brains. We don’t have the space (or the expertise) to sort through those competing explanations here.

But, while we should not be so naive as to assert ineluctable human improvement, even as we mourn, it does us no good to wallow in a false sense of moral entropy. There is evidence of progress. There is evidence that the world is becoming a better place. There is reason for hope. And without hope there will be no progress.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.