As more news continues to pour in about the horrible and heinous tragedy that occurred earlier today in Boston, it is hard to not to have distressing questions of “Why?” surface to the forefront of our thoughts.
“Why would someone do this, why is humanity plagued by this need to cause harm, and why is it happening so frequently in modern times?”
Or perhaps more tersely we will ask, as many are now doing through statuses and tweets, “What is wrong with the world today?” In this gloomy moment I think this is one question that can surprisingly give us a much needed glimmer of hope, as the answer seems to be “much less than most other times of human history.”
What happened at the Boston Marathon was a revolting display of destruction, and the imperfect medium of writing fails to capture the true sorrow I feel for the victims and their loved ones. Yet the reason why the news of this incident is so jarring and why we all can share in this sense of incredulity is that for most of us violence of this nature is completely absent from our everyday lives. In fact there is an increasing amount of data which suggests that we are currently living in possibly the most peaceful period that our species has ever experienced.
In the book Better Nature of Our Angels by Stephen Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, the argument is made that by looking at historical statistics we can see a generally decreasing trend of violence as societies grew more modernized. The argument is too robust to be given a fair exegesis in this article, but some of Pinker’s findings are certainly worth mentioning. Before societies existed in organized countries, the average annual rate of death from warfare was 524 per 100,000 people. But if we add up all the deaths from organized violence for the entire twentieth century, including all the world wars and genocides, we only get an annual rate of 60 deaths per 100,000 people. The trend is similar with murders, dropping from 100 per 100,000 people in 14th century Europe to modern day Europe where only 1 in 100,000 people are victims of murders. The Human Security Report Project also suggests a similar decrease in violence, finding that the number of civil wars dropped by 75% from 1992 to 2005, and that international conflict has been on an unprecedented decline since the mid-1970s.
This trend in data is not going to make what happened in Boston any less devastating, nor should it. However this decline in violence is important to acknowledge when living in the age of 24-hour news cycle. We are now exposed to tragedies at a faster rate than ever before and when something particularly egregious takes place, like today, it is easy to lose our resolve in the face of the intense exposure that is given by the media. Yet if we periodically step back from the constant updates, we can focus on how these times of adversity remind us of how precious life truly is, and how we are now doing a better job than ever at preserving it.
Keep the people of Boston and those who attended the marathon in your thoughts and prayers, but do not let the malicious actions of a few individuals warp your perception of how far we have come as a people, and how much good there is to look forward to as we progress into the future.