Magazine article USA TODAY

Mistrust in Government Elevates Murder Rates

Magazine article USA TODAY

Mistrust in Government Elevates Murder Rates

Article excerpt


When Americans routinely begin complaining about how they hate their government and do not trust their leaders, it may be time to look warily at the homicide rate. In researching American Homicide, a historian at Ohio State University, Columbus, tried to make sense of changing homicide rates by sifting through records of tens of thousands of murders in the U.S. and Western Europe over the past four centuries. He concluded that people's views about the legitimacy of government and how much they identify with their fellow citizens play a major role in how often they kill each other--much more so than the usual theories revolving around guns, poverty, drugs, race, or a permissive justice system.

"The predisposition to murder is rooted in feelings and beliefs people have toward government and their fellow citizens," posits Randolph Roth. "It is these factors, which may seem impossibly remote from murder, that hold the key to understanding why the United States is so homicidal today."

While Roth understands his theory may sound strange at first, it fits the evidence much better than all of the other theories about what drives people to kill. "You look at all the other theories, and they die a horrible death in the face of the evidence," he declares. That includes theories held dear by both conservatives and liberals. Poverty and unemployment do not lead to higher murder rates, as many liberals argue--while locking up criminals, using the death penalty, and adding more police do not hold the murder rate down either, as conservatives claim.

At any one point in time, researchers may find an association between one of these causes and homicide rates in a particular area but, once you try to apply those theories more broadly, at different places and in different eras, the links disappear. For instance, during the Great Depression, the homicide rate in the U.S. went down, even while poverty was increasing. In the 1960s, this country had more police and more people in prison than nearly any other nation on Earth, along with strong economic growths--and yet the murder rate skyrocketed. "Criminologists make a case for one theory or another by going through records for a short period of time, but if they try the same theory in Colonial America or the early 20th century, it won't fit. That's where it helps to have a historical perspective."

In his analysis, Roth found four factors that relate to the homicide rate in parts of the U.S. and Western Europe throughout the past four centuries: the belief that one's government is stable and its justice and legal systems are unbiased and effective; a feeling of trust in government officials and faith in their legitimacy; a sense of patriotism and solidarity with fellow citizens; and confidence that one's position in society is satisfactory and that one can command respect without resorting to violence. When those feelings and beliefs are strong, homicide rates generally are low, regardless of the time or place, Roth maintains. Yet, when people are unsure about their government leaders, do not feel connected to the rest of society, and think that they do not have the opportunity to command respect in the community, homicide rates go up.

This theory helps explain why the U.S. generally has had one of the highest murder rates since the mid 19th century of any advanced Western democracy. "As Americans, so many of us hate or distrust our government. You can see it today in the anti-government rallies in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. It's been part of our culture since the very beginning, but especially since the Civil War, and it is one reason why we have such a high homicide rate. …

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