Violence is way down: Why do we think otherwise?

Both violence in general and terrorist violence in particular are declining but most people seem to consider these facts counterintuitive.

It is a curious thing that at a time of low levels of violence many are convinced matters are getting worse.

I am a big fan of Stephen Pinker. The Canadian linguist/thinker first came to my attention years ago when I was a lot more into languages and linguistics (I taught undergraduate linguistics at Carleton University in Ottawa for 15 years). He came up with some truly fascinating ideas about language and how it functions (you really should read his 1994 book The Language Instinct).

But as this is a blog about terrorism I want to focus on another of his works. In 2011 he penned The Better Angels of our Nature: Why violence has declined, a masterful 800-page whopper that shows quite convincingly, at least in my view, that if you go back into the mists of human history and end up at the present you will see that we have collectively become much less violent over the millennia. You read that right: LESS violent, not MORE.

Worth reading, trust me

This is all counterintuitive I imagine for most people. After all, we read constantly about wars and killings and terrorism and other such forms of depravity visited by one group of humans and another. We also know the old journalistic adage “if it bleeds, it leads”. No one reads news stories headlined ‘Cat has kittens’.

And yet it appears that if you actually look at data, real data, violence is on the descendant. Note that I am not saying it is gone, but just that on a proportionate level it has declined over time. We humans don’t tend to massacre others nearly as often as we did, as bones discovered recently in Spain seem to suggest.

No matter how often we come across stories like this one out of France, which demonstrates that crime rates are stabilising if not falling, we believe the opposite. Part of this is probably political in nature and part of it is human nature: we probably tend to see the worst in each other. But the facts are what the facts are.

The same applies to terrorism.

As the comprehensive Global Terrorism Index for 2019 showed, deaths from terrorism have been declining since a peak in 2014. Yes, there are regional variations and some countries (like Afghanistan) are moving in the opposite direction, but the overall pattern is positive. No, terrorism has not been ‘defeated’ and never will since no one can defeat a common noun, but it is on the wane.

It would be best to keep this in mind when we look at the ‘resurgence’ of Islamic State (ISIS), Al Qaeda (AQ) and other jihadi groups and wring our hands over the ‘rise’ of far right violence. Even if we see momentary spikes in attacks here and there it is more likely that the downward trend should continue.

But, as they say, ‘past performance is not indicative of future results’. I would be both naive and foolish to think this cannot all go south on us again. That is why we need both to be vigilant in identifying terrorists before they act and interdicting their acts of violence and identifying those at risk of radicalisation and getting them off the ‘pathway’ before it is too late (NB the former is much easier than the latter IMHO).

Terrorism will always be with us, alas, but that does not mean we have to see it as bigger than it really is. One of the goals of terrorists and terrorist groups is to scare us: let’s not do that to ourselves and hence do that job for them.

Phil Gurski

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