After the weekend in Nairobi and Peshawar, hard to believe world is a safer place

Terrorist Violence

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Over the weekend, as you no doubt know, the Somalian Islamist militant group al Shabaab attacked a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. They killed, at last count, between 58 and 69. At the moment, Kenyan security troops are blowing their way in through the roof in and it will probably soon be over — at what additional cost to civilian lives remains to be seen.

Earlier today we posted about a recent theory that violence been on the decrease since World War II and that the world is becoming a safer place. Most prominent among those who hold that position is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), wrote that the world is considerably less violent than ever before.

The occurrence in a single weekend of the Nairobi attack and a double suicide attack on a church in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 80 occur make the-world-is-a-safer-place motif seem even more nebulous than when it was first proposed. Outbreaks such as those and similar ongoing violence, such as in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mexico’s ( the drug wars), turn it into a numbers game. That may work for Pinker et al, but it provides no consolation for the families of the victims: “Hey, it could have been worse. A few thousand might have been killed if it were an actual war.”

If we insist on trying to prove that our better natures are winning, then let’s make the accounting official. Set up a convention to the number of conflict deaths the world is “allowed” each year – say an average of 2,500 for five years running – before declaring it a safer place. Clearly we’re nowhere near that threshold now.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

3 replies »

  1. I don’t think we can point to random anomalies and use them to make blanket presumptions Russ. Example, here in the USA shootings by lunatics garner big headlines yet belie the fact that overall crime and murder rates have been decreasing exponentially here since the 1980’s.

    Is the world a safer place today than 25-30 years ago? A good question that I don’t know the answer to but there should be some hard statistical data somewhere that would let us make an informed guess as to yes or no.

  2. it’s also an easy thing to prove because ww1 was so horrendous, at least in part due to the higher deaths of the wounded. it’s not that fewer were shot, but that fewer lived. ww1 also had help from spanish influenza. when you start the graph with 65 million, pretty much every dot point after that is downslope.