“If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be, you’d choose now,” President Obama remarked in a speech last week, “because the world has never been less violent, healthier, better educated, more tolerant, with more opportunity for more people, and more connected than it is today.”
Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity, an avid Donald Trump supporter, was astounded:
“Less violent? Never been — are you kidding me?…
“What do you make, Dr. Gorka, about Obama [saying] the world has never been less violent? What alternate reality is he living in? What Alice in Wonderland fantasy is he in as of right now because it’s almost on a daily basis, sadly, we have to report this….
“The world has never been less violent? That’s President Obama, of course, naively claiming that the world is safer now more than ever….
“The world has never been less violent. I don’t know what fantasy he’s living in….
“When he says the world has never been less violent, my 14-year-old daughter recognizes he’s an idiot to say that because it’s so obviously not true….
“What the hell is he talking about? Donald Trump last night said we got to defeat ISIS and do it expeditiously. Obama: The world’s never been safer than today. Really?”
Yes, really. Obama has made similar remarks before, and what he’s talking about is the fact, documented by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that humans are, broadly speaking, less likely to die violent deaths than ever before in recorded history.
Contrary to what Hannity apparently thinks, that long-term trend — which includes deaths by war, genocide, terrorism, and other forms of mass killing as well ordinary homicide — is unaltered by whatever Fox News report happens to be uppermost in Hannity’s mind at any given moment.
Updated graphs that Pinker published last year show, among other salutary trends, that the U.S. murder rate has fallen sharply since the early 1990s, that the worldwide death rate from genocide and other mass killings fell from 10 per 1 million people in 1996 to 1 in 2013, that the number of battle deaths per 100,000 people in 2013 was close to the all-time low since 1945, and that the number of civil wars worldwide, although up since 2010, was far lower in 2013 than in the ’90s.
Looking specifically at deaths from terrorist attacks in Western Europe, which Hannity sees as a refutation of Obama’s claim, there was a spike last year, but the total was still lower than in 2004 and far lower than the averages for the 1970s and ’80s. Worldwide, according to a 2015 report from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the total number of deaths from terrorism has been rising since 2011, with five countries — Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria — accounting for 78 percent of those deaths in 2014. But deaths from terrorism represent a small percentage of all deaths by homicide: less than 3 percent worldwide in 2012, based on data from the United Nations and the National Center for Counterterrorism. They represent an even smaller share of all deaths, and for Americans the risk of dying in a terrorist attack pales beside the risk of dying from a host of quotidian causes that get much less attention from Fox News.
Terrorists want us to overlook all that, because their strategy depends on instilling inordinate fear. Donald Trump also wants us to overlook all that, for the same reason. His authoritarian, “law and order” appeal depends on perceiving the world as more dangerous than it actually is, especially when it comes to the threat posed by terrorism.
Historical perspective and an understanding of relative risk are deadly to that appeal, which is why Hannity dismissed Obama’s sensible comments as unworthy of serious consideration.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine, where this essay was posted on the Hit & Run blog, and a nationally syndicated columnist.
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