More than at any other time in recent memory, I am hearing the lament that the world is in a terrible state and that things just seem to be getting worse. The media is full of stories about terrorist acts committed by rogue organizations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda; of planes shot out of the sky, deliberately crashed, or simply lost and never found; of apparently innocent men of colour being shot dead by police officers; and the old local news-hour standby: stories of stabbing deaths, shooting deaths, beating deaths, and fatal acts of arson.
Modern communications technology brings us these stories swiftly and often in horrific detail, and constant updates as well as saturation commentary by television and radio hosts and their expert and pseudo-expert guests ensure the relentless exposure of these events to our willing and vulnerable psyches.
Media coverage of war, terrorism, and crime is a gift to politicians seeking a banner under which to parade to their next election victory. We only engage in a war on terror or a war on crime because we have been convinced that we must fear terror and crime.
The sad fact is that we do not ask why the media and politicians are hammering us with these stories, and we do not consider the importance of looking beyond the story of the day or the political sound bite and placing it in a larger historical and statistical context. In other words, if we actually thought for ourselves and dug around a little bit, we would come to the conclusion that we are not as badly off as certain elements would like us to think we are.
And perhaps we will also conclude that there are stories we are not being told.
CBC News, July 25, 2013:
“’The police-reported crime rate has followed a downward trend, and, in 2012, reached its lowest level since 1972’, Statistics Canada said in its latest report.
“Although there has been a trend toward a reduced crime rate and fewer severe crimes, spending on criminal justice continues to rise. Also, the Conservatives have introduced at least 30 bills designed to crack down on crime since Prime Minister Stephen Harper won power in 2006. Per capita spending on criminal justice — including federal and provincial jails, court costs and policing — climbed 23 per cent over the last decade, the Parliamentary budget office reported in March.”
Is no one asking why we are spending increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money cracking down on crime when it is on the decrease?
CBC News, March 6, 2015:
Re: Stephen Harper’s proposed law that will keep some offenders in prison for life.
“Canada’s prison watchdog, Howard Sapers, told CBC News in January that 99 per cent of offenders released on day parole last year did not reoffend, and 97 per cent of offenders released on full parole completed their parole without reoffending.”
Is no one asking why we need to trumpet the requirement for draconian punishments when statistics clearly indicate that the need for such punishments does not, in fact, exist?
Psychologist and author Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, presents a similar picture of American crime rates:
“[After 1992] not only did people cut down on killing, but they refrained from inflicting other kinds of harm. In the United States the rates of every category of major crime dropped by about half, including rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and even auto theft. The effects were visible not just in the statistics but in the fabric of everyday life. Tourists and young urban professionals recolonized American downtowns, and crime receded as a major issue from presidential campaigns.”
Larger-scale conflicts and acts of aggression, such as interstate wars, civil wars, genocide, and terrorism, all of which result in significant loss of life, have decreased precipitously since the end of World War II. This decline is the result of increased democratization of nations around the world, greater trade among countries, and increased involvement of states in intergovernmental organizations, like the EU.
Since 9/11, terrorism has been a regular news item and has sat high on the list of governmental concerns. One only has to observe the rhetoric swirling around the Canadian governing party’s proposed – and now passed – anti-terrorism bill, Bill C-51, to conclude that paranoia, whether real or manufactured for political expediency, is the tone of the times. The popular joke among sceptics of the legislation is that statistically one is far more likely to be killed by a moose in Canada than by a terrorist, so why are we not tabling legislation to prevent “acts of moosism”?
As for terrorism and its threat to U.S. security, Pinker proffers the following dose of reality:
“Compare the American death toll [from terrorism], with or without 9/11, to other preventable causes of death. Every year more than 40,000 Americans are killed in traffic accidents, 20,000 in falls, 18,000 in homicides, 3,000 by drowning (including 300 in bathtubs), 3,000 in fires, 24,000 from accidental poisoning, 2,500 from complications of surgery, 300 from suffocation in bed, 300 from inhalation of gastric contents, and 17,000 by ‘other and unspecified nontransport accidents and their sequelae’. In fact, in every year but 1995 and 2001, more Americans were killed by lightning, deer, peanut allergies, bee stings, and ‘ignition or melting of nightwear’ than by terrorist attacks.”
Pinker’s detailed and exhaustive study, and those of many others cited in his book, reveals that the post-World War II decline in violence is only the tail end – albeit a sharply turned-down tail end – of a trend in overall lowered rates of violence that has been occurring for an extended period of time, for centuries in fact.
Despite a general state of peace of unprecedented length among the world’s great powers since the end of World War Two, the pundits are gloomier than ever. This gloom can be mainly attributed to “the innumeracy of our journalistic and intellectual culture.”
Pinker again: “The journalist Michael Kinsley recently wrote, ‘It is a crushing disappointment that Boomers entered adulthood with Americans killing and dying halfway around the world, and now, as Boomers reach retirement and beyond, our country is doing the same damn thing’. This assumes that 5,000 Americans dying is the same damned thing as 58,000 Americans dying, and that a hundred thousand Iraqis being killed is the same damned thing as several million Vietnamese being killed.”
The facts, then, are available to us if we will only seek them out, yet we continue to bewail the miserable state of the world.
In the brilliant 1976 film Network, news anchor Howard Beale, fired because his ratings have slipped, appears on television for the last time to deliver a mad, raging tirade against the falsity of the medium in which he has enjoyed a long and rewarding career. The rant rings with truth.
“But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in ‘illusions’, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even ‘think’ like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! ‘WE’ are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF…”
Maybe we do not have to turn off our TV sets or our electronic devices; instead we might think about turning on our critical, discerning minds, to see the world around us as it really is, and to make wise choices based on an active pursuit of truth rather than a passive acceptance of a cynically created reality.
“Moose in Yellowstone,” by Tapulak. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reservedu
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)