In Europe, homicide rates, conventionally represented as the number of murder victims per hundred thousand people in the population per year, have been falling for centuries. Spierenburg attributes this long decline to what the German sociologist Norbert Elias called the “civilizing process” (shorthand for a whole class of behaviors requiring physical restraint and self-control, right down to using a fork instead of eating with your hands or stabbing at your food with a knife), and to the growing power of the centralizing state to disarm civilians, control violence, enforce law and order, and, broadly, to hold a monopoly on the use of force. (Anthropologists sometimes talk about a related process, the replacement of a culture of honor with a culture of dignity.) In feuding medieval Europe, the murder rate hovered around thirty-five. Duels replaced feuds. Duels are more mannered; they also have a lower body count. By 1500, the murder rate in Western Europe had fallen to about twenty. Courts had replaced duels. By 1700, the murder rate had dropped to five. Today, that rate is generally well below two, where it has held steady, with minor fluctuations, for the past century.
In the United States, the picture could hardly be more different. The American homicide rate has been higher than Europe’s from the start, and higher at just about every stage since. It has also fluctuated, sometimes wildly. During the Colonial period, the homicide rate fell, but in the nineteenth century, while Europe’s kept sinking, the U.S. rate went up and up. In the twentieth century, the rate in the United States dropped to about five during the years following the Second World War, but then rose, reaching about eleven in 1991. It has since fallen once again, to just above five, a rate that is, nevertheless, twice that of any other affluent democracy.
That puts a bit of a different spin on the debate of whether and how much the death penalty acts as a deterrent, doesn't it, when nations that have abolished capital punishment deter murder with greater success?
Lepore also provides an able overview of the antebellum use of capital punishment and three-strikes laws in the United States, including history I hadn't seen before:
Capital punishment has been on the books in Connecticut since 1642. Three strikes has been tried before, too. In Colonial America, many crimes, including murder, were punishable by death and, for lesser crimes, Connecticut, like many colonies, mandated the death penalty for third-time offenders. That began to change on September 7, 1768, when a burglar named Isaac Frasier was hanged in Fairfield. Frasier had shown early evidence of a “thievish Disposition.” “Men go from one degree of wickedness to another,” the town’s minister said in a sermon at the gallows titled “Excessive Wickedness, the Way to an untimely Death.” Convicted of burglary in New Haven, Frasier was whipped and branded and had his ears cropped. Caught again in Fairfield in 1766, he received the same punishment “and was solemnly warned . . . that death would be his punishment on a third Conviction.” When Frasier robbed another house, he was sentenced to death. “The Government of Connecticut have always been remarkably tender of putting persons to Death,” one observer noted. But when Frasier applied to the legislature for clemency, he was denied. Said the pastor at the gallows, “Justice requires that you should suffer.”
An outcry followed. Two weeks after Frasier’s death, a Hartford newspaper published an essay called “An Answer to a very important Question, viz. Whether any community has a right to punish any species of theft with death?” The writer’s answer—an emphatic no—borrowed extensively from Cesare Beccaria’s treatise “On Crimes and Punishments,” published in 1764. Beccaria, an Italian nobleman, argued against capital punishment—which was, at the time, widespread in Europe, too—on two grounds: first, in a republic men do not forfeit their lives to the government; and, second, capital punishment does not deter crime. Beccaria argued (and Kleiman has merely revisited that argument) that punishments, to be effective, must be swift and certain but not necessarily severe. Punishments, he insisted, should be proportionate to crimes, whose dangerousness could be measured, in “degrees,” by their injury to society. For the crime of murder, Beccaria considered life in prison to be both more just and a more effective deterrent than execution.
The first American edition of Beccaria’s treatise was published in 1777, and it reached a wide audience in Connecticut beginning in 1786, when it was serialized in a New Haven newspaper. “If we glance at the pages of history, we will find that laws, which surely are, or ought to be, compacts of free men, have been, for the most part, a mere tool for the passions of some,” Beccaria wrote. This argument held particular appeal for a people who had just finished waging a war against the passions of King George; adopting Beccaria’s recommendations came to seem, in a fundamental sense, American, as if the United States had a special role to play, as a republic, in the abolition of capital punishment. In 1784, the Yale senior class debated whether the death penalty was “too severe & rigorous in the United States for the present Stage of Society.”
In the seventeen-nineties, five states abolished the death penalty for all crimes except murder. By the eighteen-twenties, all Northern states reserved capital punishment for first-degree murder. When incarceration replaced all corporal and most capital punishment, Americans built prisons, and sentenced criminals to jail time. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty.
Most of the arguments offered for WHY the United States has higher murder rates seem a little half-baked (a prevalent European theory holds that Americans gained political freedom before we were civilized), but the higher rates are a long-term reality and it's an interesting question why Americans kill each other more often? Go read the whole piece for a taste of the variety of theories offered by different authors to explain the question. Certainly IMO there's a cultural element to it - a distinctly American preference for "honor" over "dignity," as Lepore put it. She also suggests that the wider availability of guns in America contributes. But none of these theories either a) are verifiable or b) completely explain the long-term data, even if true.
Why do you think Americans kill each other more often than citizens of other affluent democracies?