Friday, March 25, 2022

Why is violent crime on the rise?

 From The New York Times:

What explains the crime wave? There is no fully satisfying answer, but experts point to several plausible partial explanations. They include: Social isolation and frustration caused by the pandemic. A sense of lawlessness stemming from police violence (like the murder of George Floyd). Police officers’ timidity in response to recent criticism of them. And a rise in gun sales during the pandemic.

Yet the crime wave seems both too broad and too distinctly American for any one of these factors to be a tidy explanation.

Gun crime isn’t the only kind of violent crime that is rising, for example. Nor are the crime increases limited to places where police brutality has been worst. As for the pandemic, if it were the only cause, you would expect crime to have surged in many countries. Instead, it has held fairly steady in Britain, Canada, France, Japan and elsewhere.

The closest thing that I have heard to a persuasive answer comes from history. Criminologists and historians who have studied past crime waves — like Gary LaFreeRichard Rosenfeld and Randolph Roth — point out that they often occur when people are feeling frustrated with society, government and their fellow citizens. This frustration can feed a breakdown in societal norms and a rise in what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called “anomie.”

‘Fellow feeling’

Roth, looking at homicide rates in the U.S. and Western Europe over the past 400 years, argues that crime tends to increase if people lose trust in society’s institutions and basic fairness. When empathy for other citizens — or “fellow feeling,” as Roth and others call it — declines and anomie rises, crime also rises. The American crime increases of the 1960s and ’70s were a good example, criminologists say.

Most citizens do not commit crimes, of course. But social alienation makes some people more willing to break the rules and act violently. A broader sense of disorder can create a so-called moral holiday, as The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood has written.

When I was talking about this idea with colleagues yesterday, German Lopez — who’s written about the crime wave in this newsletter — pointed out that the anomie theory can feel unsatisfying because it is ephemeral and unprovable. But it also fits the facts better than any alternative, German added.

By many measures, Americans are feeling frustrated with their government, their economy and their fellow citizens. Nearly 80 percent are dissatisfied with the country’s direction, according to Gallup. People spend hours screaming at one another on social media. Many Americans consider people with opposing political ideas to be so wrong that they don’t deserve the right to express their views. Polls also show an alarming degree of skepticism about democracy and openness to political violence.

Along with these signs of alienation, a wide range of behavior has deteriorated. Alcohol abuse and drug overdoses have increased. Americans’ blood pressure is up, and measures of mental health are down. Vehicle crashes have surged.

In each of these cases, the pandemic seems to be playing a role: The trends either began or accelerated shortly after Covid overwhelmed daily life in the spring of 2020. But the pandemic appears to be only part of the story. This country’s recent dysfunction is bigger than Covid. It is a dark new form of American exceptionalism.

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