by Randolph Roth
Harvard, 672 pp., $45
Why do Americans kill each other? It is not an idle question for a nation that has the highest homicide rate among the world’s affluent democracies. For decades, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and sociologists have offered competing theories. Recently, criminologists who study deterrence have examined legitimacy—a broad term used to describe a community’s trust in local law enforcement and in the justice system’s fairness in sentencing, among other things—to explain fluctuations in homicide rates.
Over the years historians have also offered explanations for the country’s violent tendencies, ranging from the upheavals caused by immigration and urbanization to the deep-rooted honor culture of the 19th-century South. In American Homicide, Randolph Roth, professor of history and sociology at Ohio State, offers an intriguing hypothesis to explain the country’s homicide rates: Murder isn’t personal; it’s political. Drawing on the work of criminologist Gary LaFree, who argues that, in the 20th century, the crime rate increased when people reported greater distrust in government and other social institutions, Roth looks back through American history and locates a similar force at work over the previous century-and-a-half.
According to Roth, homicide rates among unrelated adults “are not determined by proximate causes such as poverty, drugs, unemployment, alcohol, race, or ethnicity.” Nor are they influenced by stricter prison sentences or other tough-on-crime measures. Rather, the homicide rate is driven by four factors that might seem surprisingly removed from murder and mayhem: Americans’ belief that “government is stable and that its legal and judicial institutions are unbiased and will redress wrongs and protect lives and property”; feelings of trust in government and a belief in the legitimacy of government officials; a sense of patriotism and “fellow feeling” among citizens; and the “belief that the social hierarchy is legitimate” and that within it a person “can command the respect of others without resorting to violence.”
When these feelings are absent, Roth argues, societies become predisposed to violence.
America’s peculiarly violent history has its roots in the mid-19th century, when homicide rates began to rise much more dramatically than in Western Europe. Roth locates the cause as the country’s failure to “coalesce into a nation.”
As the country struggled through the wrenching and divisive changes of the mid-19th century—the crises over slavery and immigration, the decline in self-employment and the rise of industrialized cities—the patriotic faith in government that most Americans had felt so strongly after the Revolution was undermined by anger and distrust.
A kind of national alienation set in, and violence soon followed. With few exceptions during the 20th century, ours has remained the most murderous democracy in the world.
Roth admits that his emphasis on political feelings is only a hypothesis; but it is a bold one. In positing that the political climate influences homicide rates, he rejects several strands of conventional wisdom about the causes of crime: He dismisses the argument (first made by sociologist Norbert Elias) that the United States simply hasn’t traveled far enough along the “civilizing process” to neutralize its homicidal impulses. But he also rejects both traditionally liberal arguments about homicide (that it can be traced to poverty and lack of opportunity) and traditionally conservative ones (more police on the street and stricter sentences will deter murderers).
Roth’s intriguing thesis does raise some questions, however. Although he and his colleagues at Ohio State are compiling an extensive statistical database, the Historical Violence Database, to study homicide rates throughout history, the question nevertheless remains: How do you measure feelings and beliefs such as patriotism and legitimacy, the things Roth views as central to understanding why Americans kill? Can you quantify trust? Roth points to things such as the number of new counties named for national heroes as examples of faith in government: “The best predictor of increases and declines in America’s homicide rate has been the percentage of new counties named for national heroes,” he writes, and “when Americans stopped identifying with each other through national heroes, they killed each other more often.”
But this indirect measure of identification does not adequately explore the difference between faith in government institutions at the local level, where most policing occurs, and at the federal level, where policymaking prevails. Contradictory impulses can coexist. It is possible to place great faith and legitimacy in one’s local police force while simultaneously harboring serious doubts about a particular president or members of Congress. You can love Barney Fife but mistrust Barney Frank.
As well, although Roth is concerned with the legitimacy of political institutions, he says little about the role that media or culture plays in encouraging or discouraging faith in government. Cultural historians have offered many arguments for the role newspapers and other media have played in shaping Americans’ attitudes toward their government and its institutions over the past two centuries. Roth’s work would have benefited from a more sustained engagement with that rich historiography.
Finally, Roth spends little time exploring another important yet impossible to quantify thing that is nonetheless integral to a well-functioning society: the character of a society’s citizens. The self-control, emotional maturity, and ability to delay gratification vital to creating nonviolent, active participants in a society is not (for Roth) as central as trust in political institutions. But these qualities of good character are surely the building blocks for broader feelings such as patriotism. And as psychology and sociology have taught us, these vital traits must be learned at an early age, preferably within the context of stable families and communities.
Is distrust of government really the main force driving homicide? If it is, then Roth’s argument might provide fodder for the powerful to suppress dissent. Who could argue with an administration that cracked down on anti-government protestors in the name of lowering homicide rates for all? In this climate, perhaps Nixon-style enemies lists would be viewed as more effective prophylactic measures against homicide than our current culture of Americans angrily sniping at each other from the virtual safety of their respective partisan political websites or on cable news shows.
In the end, whether or not we embrace Roth’s thesis as definitive, his provocative and wide-ranging history persuasively argues for the benefits of a less divisive and polarized political culture. After all, if Roth is right, it just might be killing us.
Christine Rosen, a senior editor at the New Atlantis, is the author, most recently, of My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of Divine Girlhood.