Opinion » Note

America Gets Medieval on its Own Ass

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We already have enough hot takes, think pieces and punditry surrounding the current national curse of shootings—be they mass shootings, the shooting of people of color by police or the shooting of police themselves. That said, it bears noting a piece by Christopher Ingraham published July 6 on the Washington Post Wonkblog. The provocative headline: "Why living in some U.S. cities is literally like living in the Middle Ages."

Ingraham writes that while murder rates in Europe are between 1/40th and 1/50th as high as they were up to 700 years ago, the relative peacefulness of western civilization is not shared by all its inhabitants. Drawing on the work of Oxford economist Max Roser, select U.S. cities do not stack up well against historic levels of violence in an era we associate with Game of Thrones-style carnage. For instance, the murder rate in Oakland, Calif. is roughly equivalent with England's in about 1350 (20 per 100,000). Things are worse in Cleveland, where the murder rate of 30 per 100,000 ranks with mid-14th century Germany. Meanwhile, living in Detroit or Baltimore (with murder rates of 48 and 55 per 100,000, respectively) is about as dangerous as it was for Italians in the 16th century. That might not sound so bad—it was the Renaissance, right?—but the 1500s in Italy were also a century of unceasing internal and external warfare. Remember the Borgias?

Based on Roser's numbers, it's generally as safe to live in America in the 21st century, with its murder rate of 10 per 100,000, as it was to live in England in 1500. Put another way, some of our biggest cities host levels of violence not seen in Europe for at least 100 years and, too often, as far back as the Viking Age.

There are caveats aplenty with this data. The population sample in the U.S. is far larger and—when stacking cities against countries—more dense than that of any medieval European society. Plus, we're talking about records that are centuries old.

Still, the reality of America's killing problem is laid in stark contrast to Europe: every one of the countries profiled boasted murder rates of about 1 per 100,000 in 2014 and almost all have hovered at fewer than 5 per 100,000 since 1700.

If that's not a historic embarrassment, I don't know what is.