Randolph Roth’s American Homicide looks at the politics of murder

Why Politics Makes Us Kill

The surprising roots of homicide.

From Newsweek, by Raina Kelly


It’s no secret that America is polarized. Now a new book makes the case that our relationship to government may explain rises and falls in another U.S. pastime: murder. In American Homicide, Randolph Roth, a professor of history and criminology at Ohio State, traces the history of our murdering ways through the lens of our feelings about those in power. (Click here to follow Raina Kelley)

Even putting aside our obsession with crime-fighting TV shows, we live in an incredibly violent country. That’s been true since the early 19th century when we became the most homicidal country in the Western world—a title we still hold. As Roth writes, “two-thirds of the world’s people live in nations that are less homicidal than the United States.” And he does not hesitate to use statistics to an even more dramatic effect: “nearly 1 of every 200 children born today will be murdered.”

What Homicide also does is upend much of the conventional wisdom about crime. Even casual followers of the news can recite the most commonly named causes of American homicide: institutional poverty, class envy, lax gun laws, gangs, drugs, and the TV favorites—jealousy, greed, and unrequited love. But none of those reasons accounts fully for either the fluctuation of murder rates over hundreds of years or the consistently high rates that have always been our country’s burden.

Roth argues that how we see ourselves in relation to our government—fringe movement or ruling party, patronized or disenfranchised—is at the heart of many decisions to take another life. “What matters,” Roth writes, “is that [citizens] feel represented, respected, included, and empowered.” If an individual feels secure in his social standing, it’s easier to get over life’s disappointments. But for a person who feels alienated from the American Dream, the tiniest offense can provoke a murderous rage. (That’s why easy access to weapons doesn’t help.)

We accept as a matter of course that throughout our history “Americans were deeply divided by race, ethnicity, and religion,” and as Roth reminds us, “homicide rates rose further when those divisions were politicized.” Looking at the fluctuating homicide rate at various times in our history, Roth tracks the historical consequences of shifting power. After the Revolutionary War, murder rates soared as the newly formed U.S. struggled to absorb British loyalists. The end of the Civil War didn’t relieve the bitterness many Southerners felt toward the government—and it shows in the precipitous rise in homicides in the rural South. On a positive note, Roth credits FDR for falling murder rates in the 1930s as Roosevelt’s New Deal “increased Americans’ faith in the country, their leadership, and one another.” What also becomes clear in Homicide is that our nation’s bruising fight for racial equality has given us cause to be suspicious of speech that pits people against each other based on the color of their skin. That has led to violence many times in our past: the New York Draft Riots in 1863, the riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum by James von Brunn.

Roth’s book also offers a warning about our volatile political rhetoric. Words can have real-life, even violent, consequences. Homicide is a vivid reminder that politics isn’t just about winning—it’s also about how you treat those who lose.

I doubt that President Obama has forgotten the firestorm that resulted from his campaign description of white rural Pennsylvanians as people who when “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them…as a way to explain their frustrations.” Afterward, Obama seemed to realize that such divisiveness might help him with his liberal base, but it wouldn’t win over hearts and minds of the whole electorate. I believe it was then that Obama learned what Roth posits is the key to mending our murderous ways—inclusion is central to satisfying our multicultural nation. Despite the recession, crime rates have dropped sharply nationwide this year. Perhaps despite our political divide, we want to believe Obama when he says, “If the people cannot trust their government…to protect them and to promote their common welfare, all else is lost.” But if people are still giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, there are signs we may be preparing for the worst: The Washington Post reported that gun and ammunition sales are up nearly 50 percent from a year ago. Here’s hoping that Obama stays on his centrist path.

© 2009

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