Read the comments on any news story involving a violent crime or follow any active news feed, and you will see comment after comment lamenting the state of the world and talking about how fearful we have to be of, well, pretty much everyone.
If the comments at your local news site are anything to go by, you could be the victim of a home invasion at any moment. Your children are in danger of being snatched up 24 hours a day. That guy in your neighborhood taking a walk is probably a rapist. And so on.
The problem with all this fear is that it’s largely baseless.
Unless you live in a community like Camden, NJ or St. Louis, MO, chances are that you’re safer now than you’ve ever been. We live in a time with near historic lows in crime rates. The national violent crime rate has dropped by 51 percent since 1991. In 2013, we had the lowest national crime rate since 1970. Crime has been trending down since the early 1990s and continues to decline.
For example, in 1993, there were 79.8 violent crimes per 1,000 people in the U.S. By 2014, that had fallen to 20.1. Some measurements show certain crimes happening at rates comparable to the mid-1950s.
By virtually every measurement, all credible sources say that right now is an incredibly safe time to be living in America (assuming you’re not living in one of the small handful of cities that are experiencing a spike), and they have reams and reams of data to back that up.
In 2011, The New York Times noted, “The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States.”
According to Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, “We have witnessed a remarkable drop in crime since the 1980’s — both violent crime and crime overall. Entire cities have been transformed, unlocking tremendous potential and releasing a wave of prosperity.”
But wait, that can’t be right, can it?
Take a look at what your friends are sharing on Facebook and you see one horrific crime after another, with mass shootings plaguing the nation and criminals running wild. The news is FILLED with this stuff, far more than we can ever remember seeing.
I mean, it’s pretty clear that crime is on the RISE, right? After all, you can’t go a day without seeing multiple stories about horrible crimes taking place.
Well, that sums up the perception problem right there.
You may think the world is a more dangerous place, but that’s largely because an explosion in news sources and the 24-hour news cycle makes you more aware of crime incidents than at any other time in human history. Literally, at no point in all of human history have you ever been more hyperly aware of crime than you are today. As the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and thanks to media overload, you’re directly exposed to more (sensational, shallow) news than any other generation ever.
It’s hard to escape them, too, even if you don’t avidly follow the news. Stories of violent crimes pop up right in your Facebook feed and show up on your smartphone and your Twitter feeds, giving you the impression that there is more danger out there than there really is. This makes these criminal acts feel as if they are a part of your day-to-day life.
There are more media outlets than ever before, they push out news 24 hours a day and need to fill those hours, and they come at you by TV, radio, print, the Internet, text, and more. You can’t escape crime reports because they’re everywhere. This is in stark contrast to just a generation or so ago, when you often wouldn’t know about incidents just a few counties over, much less from all over the country. You had the rare national crime story that captured the nation’s attention, but otherwise most crime news was local and fleeting.
Now, you’re acutely aware of incidents 2,000 miles away that will never, ever impact your life.
As a result, it can be easy to get the impression that the world is more dangerous than ever. Thankfully, it’s quite the opposite. Yes, many of the news stories we see can be pretty horrible. But no, they don’t mean you need to be living in a constant state of fear. Hard data bears that out.
Remember: being more AWARE of crime than in the past doesn’t mean there is actually more crime, it simply means that you’re better informed.
It’s not just my imagination that people seem more fearful of crime than ever, either. Forget about reading news site comment sections. They’re cesspools, anyway. Repeated Gallop polls consistently show that most Americans think crime is on the rise, despite every indication that the opposite is true, even in major cities.
Despite getting hammered with stories about crime after crime after crime, the ACTUAL fear of an increasingly violent society is something that should for the moment be in our past. As a HuffPo report points out, “the violent crime rate increased by 126 percent between 1960 and 1970, and by 64 percent between 1970 and 1980.” Those are genuine increases in crime backed by hard data, not the news-driven misconceptions about the state of the world that cause people to cower today.
What often frustrates me the most is that you can present this data to people and they will simply state that it can’t possibly be true because “I don’t remember seeing this much crime when I was growing up.” (That’s only a slight paraphrase of a response I’ve gotten multiple times, including within the last 72 hours.)
People often cite their childhood memories of a better world, a time when you could play outdoors unattended and leave your doors unlocked, as proof that the world is not as safe as it once was. You can’t do that anymore, they say, because the world is full of crazies.
But the world is no more or less filled with crazies now than it was then. There have ALWAYS been nutcases and abusers hiding among us. The biggest difference in your perception of then versus now, aside from being inundated with media like never before, is that you were a child then with a child’s view of the world.
If given a choice between trusting the memories of a kid and the work of countless professionals and agencies whose job it is to track and collate reams of data … well, it’s not really a choice at all, wouldn’t you say? Ignoring actual hard data because as a child you don’t remember being as informed about crime seems a little odd don’t you think?
And yet people do every single day. The data is clear, widely available, and has been gathered, checked and vetted by multiple sources. It’s not really refutable, but we’re so wrapped up in the idea of being afraid of our own shadows we refuse to see it.
It’s a shame, because as a better writer than I once wrote, “Fear is the mind killer.”
We have become a nation paralyzed and consumed by fear, and that is nothing short of tragic. It’s also something that does not bode well for our future, because people driven by fear are not prone to make rational decisions. Sadly, it’s only likely to get worse, too.
Is a little bit of clear-thinking too much to ask?