The Newtown tragedy took place amid a parade of homicidal images, stories and films so steady that it almost goes unnoticed.
Kids obsess over video games in which they kill, shoot and rob their way to riches. Last season’s finale of “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s zombie-killing flesh feast, was the most-watched television episode in cable history. At the cinema, “Hitchcock” spends two hours narrating how “Psycho,” perhaps the godfather of the slasher film, came to be. On bookshelves, the big bestseller is “Gone Girl,” a novel about the disappearance of a wife, perhaps killed by her husband.
So, America, amid this cultural bloodbath, it should come as no surprise to you that we are killing each other . . . about as seldom as we ever have.
The national homicide rate for 2011 was 4.8 per 100,000 citizens — less than half of what it was in the early years of the Great Depression, when it peaked before falling precipitously before World War II. The peak in modern times of 10.2 was in 1980, as recorded by national criminal statistics.
“We’re at as low a place as we’ve been in the past 100 years,” says Randolph Roth, professor of history at Ohio State University and author of this year’s “American Homicide,” a landmark study of the history of killing in the United States. “The rate oscillates between about 5 and 9 [per 100,000], sometimes a little higher or lower, and we’re right at the bottom end of that oscillation.”
Last year’s rate was the lowest of any year since 1963, when the rate was 4.6, according to the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Don’t relax quite yet: Americans still kill one another at a much higher rate than do citizens of other wealthy nations.
“By international standards, we never really get to ‘low,’ ” Roth says.
And, no matter what your favorite politician says about gun control or the lack of it, the homicide rate has been near stagnant or falling for 21 consecutive years — even as images of violence have proliferated, even as the stock market has soared and crashed, as political upheavals have come and gone, as drugs have waxed and waned, even as the number of high-profile mass killings like the one in Newtown has risen.
The nation’s homicides — a little more than 14,000 last year — are a separate beast from these types of slayings, historians and criminologists say.
The vast number of homicides arise from arguments, fights, drug deals and domestic disputes, most often among people who know one another. Becky Block, vice president of the American Society of Criminology and an analyst at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, has studied a data set of 22,000 killings in Chicago from 1965 through 2000.
“My perspective is that there’s no such thing as just homicide,” she says. “What you have is a lot of different kinds of violence — robberies, child abuse, barroom brawls, intimate-partner disputes, gangs — and some of these end in homicide and some don’t.”
Mass killings, by contrast, almost always stem from one man’s pre-suicidal outburst, often directed at strangers. The perpetrators are overwhelmingly white middle-class males, who otherwise have a fairly low rate of homicide, according to federal crime statistics.
“The overall homicide rate and these kind of mass murders run along different tracks,” says Roger Lane, professor emeritus of history at Haverford College and author of “Murder in America,” another assessment of killing across the nation’s history. “The profile of the typical killer and the typical mass murderer — these are different wellsprings of psychological motivation.”
Meanwhile, over the decades, the homicide rate goes up and down like the stock market — no one has any simple reason why — but one overall trend is as clear as it is surprising: The idea that we used to be a kinder, gentler bunch is nothing but myth.
The national rate of homicides has greatly decreased over the past 150 years or so, historians say. This bears some hedging, because there were no nationally compiled data in the 19th century, but the case studies are frightening.
“The highest murder rate in national history was between 1846 and 1887,” not including Civil War deaths, Roth says. “During Reconstruction, there were counties in Louisiana where you had 200 people per 100,000 residents killed. You’d have counties in Texas with 10,000 people and 500 people killed. In Los Angeles in the 1840s, one in every 46 people were murdered. It’s amazing how many people got killed.”
These days, people would make a movie about that.