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America's Apathy Toward Murder

by R. Anthony Arnold
August 2022

Talking about the murder rate in the U.S. is a tough subject, in the best of times. During times like these, it’s considerably harder. Our inability to talk about much of anything means that any discussion is likely to devolve into aimless finger pointing and blaming. Yet, we must talk about it; because however difficult and messy the conversation is, the reality of the last few years is plain to see.

Murder rates are on the rise, and murder clearance rates (1) are hovering around 50%.

The lowest U.S. murder rate in the last 30 years was in 2014, when it was just over 4 murders per 100,000 people – a number very comparable to the supposed “better times” of 1960, when it was roughly the same – after it had fallen from the 1950’s. What that number doesn’t tell you, though, is that even in the best of times, when murder is low, it’s still significantly higher than every other peer country would accept. In 2001, the U.K. had a homicide wave, leading to a 30 year high of 1.87 homicides per 100,000 people. To put it bluntly, our valleys are higher than their peaks.

Our problem with murders pre-dates covid, the rise of gun sales in the 1980’s, and the disastorous drug laws that followed. It has maintained through economic boons, recessions, and pseudo-depressions.

For a very long time now, America has been a spectacularly violent nation, a complete outlier among comparable nations. This would lead one to think that crime is something that we just don’t care much about.

So, why don’t we care?

It’s easy enough to see how a murderer is responsible for their own acts, but it’s much harder, and more politically damaging, to suggest that law-abiding citizens also share some of the blame.

For conservatives, murder is the opposite of a ‘culture of life,’ which is something they at least pay lip service to desiring. For progressives, protecting people from murder is the kind of essential task they should be interested in doing, if their goal is to show us that the government can be trusted with the greater responsibility and power their platform seems to require.

When we zoom in and examine our parties in greater detail, we instead see the ways that political dysfunction, via political parties, operate as a suppressor in this case, draining the motivation to truly address the issue.

Crime, and murder, is thought of as an 'urban' problem. (By urban, I mean cities, not anything else.) Cities, especially our largest ones, are mostly run by Democrats. That’s one reason why President Trump was more than willing to attack some American cities, rhetorically, because the people running them weren’t ‘his people’, in the first place. But, Republicans don’t fare any better, here.

While they’re more willing to call out crime when it happens, they aren’t willing to talk about what it might take to slow it down. Compromised by the gun lobby, and deathly afraid of angering police, they can’t reliably talk about how more guns lead to more violence, and they certainly can’t ask, “Should we change American policing?”

So, even as the murders go up, and the clearance rates go down, they, too, find themselves scared to talk, much less act.

But, sometimes, you simply must eat your vegetables.

There’s no substitute for caring. There’s no replacement for actual concern, the kind that’s given out of an honest desire to help the other person, and the kind that carries with it some kind of risk.

For, caring leads to action. And truthfully, there’s just no acceptable explanation for ignoring the various plights of others, especially for legislators. There’s no real justification for sitting by while the world burns and others pay the price.

This doesn’t mean that each of us has to turn into an activist, or a marcher. You don’t have to carry a sign or do sit-ins. Being engaged with the world and working towards solutions occurs on every level, and not everyone has to contribute at the same level.

But, solving something as tricky as murder and justice, in a way that doesn’t merely reproduce the failures of our 'tough on crime' era, will require that many of us get off the sidelines and into the action.

No solution, on any issue, is possible if we aren’t engaged. Policy wonks and technocrats are valuable, but their belief that we can smartly design our way out of a profound moral failure is not just wrong, but it may also be harmful.

Believing that stopping murder is a matter of just turning the right dials, the ones marked 'economy' or 'guns' or 'racism', relieves our leaders of the need to talk about the much thornier questions of right and wrong; or a person’s own personal responsibility.

If we were a relatively peaceful country that behaved well towards one another, only to have some outside force disrupt us, leading to a sustained period of violence, then perhaps you could point at that disruption as the prime culprit. It would then follow that what you should do is target that disruption with smart legislation, with the belief that once it is gone, things would return to normal. In this scenario our politicians are like doctors treating a disease that’s afflicting the rest of the body.

What we have right now is something very different. If there was a time when the United States wasn’t like this, then it’s some time in the very distant and unobservable past. And the fact that we cannot even imagine a world where the United States simply looks like the countries we compare ourselves to is a profound indicator of the despair, disappointment, cynicism, and a lack of imagination that shapes us.

I won’t suggest that by reaching some idyllic and elevated state, our problems will go away and murder will simply vanish. What I will suggest is that if we, the people, cannot even dream of a better world, then we certainly cannot take the necessary steps towards building it.

We don’t care about murders, because we cannot imagine a world without them.

If the first step towards solving the problem is picturing a world without murder, then I think the logical follow-up question is, “How do we build our political imagination?”

To begin, let's place the events around us in context. Think about Notre-Dame cathedral. Even if you aren’t a religious person, you still recognize the wonderful architecture of the building. It’s one of the most awe inspiring buildings in existence. And it took nearly 200 years to complete.

The people who started the project did so knowing that it wouldn’t be completed in their lifetime. But, they did it anyway. Doing so required not just dedication to a cause larger than themselves, but it also required an active imagination. How else could they have tried to picture what the cathedral would one day look like, and all the people who might benefit from it?

Politics benefits from a powerful belief in what’s possible.

Even murder will not be solved unless we’re willing to dedicate ourselves to a long project, willing to endure frequent setbacks, and accept the possibility that the work will not be completed in our lifetime.

This holds true, no matter what your preferred solution is, which is why it’s a necessary ingredient in all of them.

If you believe that murder is mostly driven by poverty, then you need to fix some significant portion of the economy in order to stop it.

If you believe that murder is driven by too many guns, then you need to reduce the number of guns in circulation, and radically so. It took Australia nearly two decades to tackle their problem, and they were starting far closer to the finish line than we would be.

Or, maybe murder is driven by a lack or church attendance, as some people believe. In that case, fixing it will require convincing people to resume attending church or attend for the first time, a trend that would represent a stunning reversal of the current direction, and one that forces the church to perhaps confront its indiscretions and other reasons for low attendance.

Every possible fix that could be proposed will require significant time, people willing to work incredibly hard for a cause, and the belief that the goal and the people they’re working for are worth it.

We aren’t lacking in potential solutions. At this point there are dozens of options available to us. What we’re missing are people who care enough to make any of them work. And we’re missing leaders and intellectuals who believe their job isn’t just to present dry policy prescriptions, but that it’s to also inspire us to become our greater selves.

Supporting Information

  • A case is cleared when a person is arrested for a crime, not necessarily convicted, or if there are other more rare circumstances, such as a suspect’s death or the offender already being locked up.