As we’re faced with a seemingly ever-increasing amount of bloodshed and horror in the news, the question that’s being asked on social media is: when did the world get so violent?
The number of horrific incidents 2016 is throwing at us gives the impression the world truly has gone mad, with a terrorist attack in Nice, an attempted military coup in Turkey, three policeman killed by a sniper in America, at least 73 Syrian civilians killed in a U.S. airstrike, two attacks in Germany, and a suicide bombing in Kabul in less than two weeks.
This sentiment was mirrored on Twitter, with the hashtag #2016in3words trending worldwide last weekend and overwhelmingly producing reactions like the ones below.
But is the world actually becoming more violent? According to Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker – no.
In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker puts forward a mountain of evidence that suggests we’re actually living in the most peaceful era we’ve ever seen as a species.
He opens by saying:
This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.
And despite recent atrocities, he still stands by this claim, giving an interview in the wake of Nice and Turkey where he reiterated his thesis, stating that ‘despite the headlines, the world is becoming less violent’.
Pinker says that homicide, war, genocide and terrorism have been steadily decreasing across the world – although he admits the Syrian civil war has upped the rate of death from warfare, and that homicides in the U.S. have very slightly increased in the last three years, they’re still a tiny fraction of what they were in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Pinker isn’t the only one highlighting the trend either. Back in 2010 Canadian researchers found that, since the year 2000, the average military conflict has killed 90 per cent less people each year than during the 1950s. They also established that since the Cold War ended 25 years ago, the number of high-intensity conflicts has decreased by 70 per cent.
This analysis was backed up by a 2009 study at Ohio State University, which found that the number of ongoing wars – conflicts resulting in the death of at least 1,000 people per year – declined from 26 in 1991 to five in 2007.
A quick glance at recent headlines would seem to confirm that terrorism is at an all-time high, but this chart by Statista for the Huffington Post showing the number of victims of terrorist attacks in Western Europe, from 1970 to 2015, paints a different picture.
The 1970s saw the most terrorist incidents in Europe, with The Troubles in Northern Ireland heralding the resurgence of the IRA and other paramilitary groups, who were responsible for most of the attacks in the UK.
Across Western Europe, incidents slowly quietened down through the ’80s (with the exception of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988), until we reached the early ’90s, where the number of attacks started to shrink quite rapidly up until the present day, bar a few major incidents – the 2004 Madrid bombings, Anders Breivik’s 2011 attack in Norway and the atrocities in Paris late last year.
In the UK, terrorist attacks virtually ceased after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and have remained rare since, with the exception of the London bombings in 2005.
So far in 2016, Western Europe has seen 129 deaths from terrorism, with major attacks in Brussels and Nice (the Nice death total may still rise as people remain critical in hospital), the shooting in Munich, smaller incidents in Belfast and Paris, as well as the Jo Cox murder in Birstall last month.
Also, when you consider the above figures in contrast with the number of people in the rest of the world killed by terrorists between 2001 and 2014, it pales in comparison:
If you look at police statistics, violence has declined massively in recent times as well. To use the U.S. as an example, violent crime dropped from 757.7 per 100,000 persons in 1992 to 386.3 per 100,000 persons in 2011. These figures even continued to fall during two severe recessions, from 2001 to 2003 and 2008 to 2012, going against the predictions of law enforcement and sociologists.
So why is there an increased climate of fear?
One explanation could be that as we get older we simply become more aware of violent atrocities, and as you start to follow global events more closely, you’re exposed to violence in a way that you weren’t as a child – in other words, your innocent view of the world is altered. This, combined with increased use of social media and the role that plays in relaying information, would serve to give the impression that we are seeing unprecedented levels of violence.
The way we digest news has changed massively, with Twitter, video and live-streaming making the brutality of the world seem more real than ever before.
Another reason could be that after seeing such a large decrease in murders, violent crime, war and terrorism in the relatively peaceful late ’90s and ’00s, the slight spike we’re currently undergoing would seem much bigger than it actually is. Looking at the evidence, the last few years’ increase in violence, when compared to historic incidents, is a relatively low amount.
Whatever the answer, it won’t bring much reassurance to people reading the headlines, or any comfort to those directly affected by recent horrific incidents. We can only hope that the number of violent incidents falls further, but the way things are going I’m not holding out much hope that 2016 will bring any good news.