Turn on the TV or fire up your phone. You’ll find several narratives telling you how the world is spiraling out of control, full of racist cops and mindless thugs, terrorists pining to destroy the west and bombs that seem to be decimating every square inch of the Middle East. Eastern Asia is rife with internal conflicts, Burma is in the middle of a genocide and world superpowers seem to be running proxy wars anywhere they can. A lot of it is true, some of it is exaggeration and some is outright lies — it’s difficult to tell the difference between what’s what, but regardless: the world seems like it’s on fire.
Why is that? The media can be a malicious bunch, huddling around ten protesters to make it seem like the whole city is rioting. The media outlets that generally tell the truth are going to struggle with their ratings — how many times have you seen a small protest on television with ten people and sat down and watched, eyes glued to the screen? Probably less than you may have sat down and watched what seemed like an actual riot. Those views mean exposure to advertising, which means more money for whoever is broadcasting. So it is both the fault of the media and the consumer, if fault must be laid somewhere.
Uplifting news may garner a lot of likes on Facebook, but it still doesn’t have the impact that say, violence does, because it doesn’t stir the “I need to do something” response (even if that something never happens).
We also live in the dawn of the information age. Video from around the world is more accessible than ever — when we may have seen nothing but print headlines in the newspaper before, we can now view firefight after firefight in Syria, or racial conflicts across the United States, or a terrorist attack in Europe. These things are at our fingertips, and despite the fact that they might have been lessening in frequency compared to previous centuries, it seems more real than ever before as we watch it with our own eyes.
And these things have given many an inaccurate picture of the way the world really is — we are, after all, living in the most peaceful time in human history.
Some people call it the “Long Peace,” and it started at the close of WWII in 1945. The entire world that was engulfed in war, and after a brutal campaign and two nuclear bombs, the earth’s major powers found peace. Since then, war-related deaths on a whole have sharply declined.
Why is that? Some people attribute it to the already waning levels of violence (on a broad scale), and the slow decrease of violence over the years. Of course that is punctuated by insanely intense world wars made more deadly than ever by new technology, but on a big-picture level this could be a contributing factor.
Many people attribute the “Long Peace” to the invention of nuclear weapons. The world-changing level of casualties tend to happen when major superpowers get involved — that’s how world wars happen. Nuclear bombs changed everything with the phrase: “mutually assured destruction.” That means that if one power fires their nukes, everyone is toast. Everyone knows that total war will escalate to someone using their ultimate weapon since they have it, so in order to prevent nuclear destruction on a global scale, war must be prevented at all costs.
Of course, that has led to proxy wars, and just because we’re in the most peaceful era in history, doesn’t mean there aren’t devastating wars fought among local powers or superpowers via proxies. Lower levels of violence certainly doesn’t mean no violence at all.
But what about the United States? While the average levels of death and violence worldwide has gone down, surely our own country is worse off than ever before.
That would be incorrect. Violent crimes in the U.S. haven’t just dipped — they’ve plummeted. In the early 1993, the FBI reported around 747.1 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. By 2016, that number was down to 386.3. The reasons behind this decline has been a subject of debate, but the numbers are undeniable.
Why does that matter? It certainly doesn’t matter to the grieving mother who just lost her son to gang violence in LA; you can’t exactly pat a Rohingya refugee on the back and say, “Hey just be thankful that you’re living in the most peaceful time in history.” Nor would you say those things to a grieving widow who lost her husband to the fight in Afghanistan.
So shouldn’t we treat all these problems as if they were a part of a world in dire straits? Yes, absolutely. But it would be simply inaccurate to pretend like we are all living in peril comparable to previous centuries. Peace is fragile. The quickest way to lose something is to never realize you had it in the first place.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.