Picture your dream vacation. Maybe you're dying to go to Rio for Carnival. Or you really just want to hang out on a Mexican beach. Or maybe you're going to join me in New Orleans for Jazz Fest. Now, I know it's less pleasant, but picture, for a moment, one of the most violent places on earth. Did anyone think of the same place?
Brazil is the most violent country in the world today. More people have been dying there over the last three years than in Syria. And in Mexico, more people have died over the last 15 years than in Iraq or Afghanistan. In New Orleans, more people per capita are dying than in war-torn Somalia.
The fact is, war only results in about 18 percent of violent deaths worldwide. Today, you are more likely to die violently if you live in a middle-income democracy with high levels of income inequality and serious political polarization. The United States has four of the 50 most violent cities on earth.
Now, this is a fundamental alteration in the nature of violence, historically. But it's also an opportunity. Because while few people can do much to end war, violence in our democracies is our problem. And while regular voters are a big part of that problem, we're also key to the solution.
Now, I work at a think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I advise governments on what to do about violence, but the dirty secret is, most policymakers haven't figured out these changes to violence today. They still believe that the worst violence happens in countries at war or places that are too poor, too weak, to fight violence and control crime. And that had been my assumption too. But if you look at a map of the most violent places on earth, you see something strange. Some of them are at war, and a few are truly failed states. The violence in these places is horrific, but they happen to have small populations, so it actually affects few people. Then there's South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela. These places are not poor. Maybe they're weak.
My research assistant and I mapped places based on how well they delivered on World Bank projects and whether they could get public services to their people, and if you did well on both of those, if you could get sanitation and electricity to your people and deliver vaccines, you were in the upper right-hand quadrant. And then we overlaid that with a map of places where journalists were being murdered. Some were happening in weak states, but an awful lot of journalists were being killed in places plenty capable of protecting them.
I traveled to every settled continent on earth, comparing places that had faced massive violence and recovered and those that hadn't, and I kept seeing the same pattern. I came to call it "privilege violence," because it happened in highly unequal democracies, where a small group of people wanted to hold on to inordinate power and privilege. And if they didn't think they could get those policies past the voters, sometimes they would turn to violent groups for help. Drug cartels would finance their campaigns. Organized criminals would help them get out the vote. Gangs would suppress the vote. And in exchange, they'd be given free reign, and violence would grow.
Take Venezuela. It's the most violent country in the world today, if you look at deaths per capita. Twenty years ago, the current regime gained power in legitimate elections, but they didn't want to risk losing it, and so they turned to gangs, called "colectivos," for help. The gangs were told to get out the vote for the government and force people to vote for the regime in some neighborhoods and keep opposition voters away from the polls in others, and, in exchange, they'd be given control. But if criminals have control, then police and courts can't do their jobs. So the second stage in privilege violence is that courts and police are weakened, and politicians politicize budgets, hiring, firing, so that they and the violent groups that they collude with stay out of jail.
Now, pretty soon, good cops leave, and many that remain become brutal. They start off, usually, with rough justice. They kill a drug dealer that they think would be let off by the corrupt courts. But over time, the worst of them realize that there will be no repercussions from the politicians they're in bed with, and they go into business for themselves. In Venezuela, nearly one in three murders is by the security services.
Now, the poor are hit hardest by violence all over the world, but they're hardly going to turn to such predatory cops for help. So they tend to form vigilante groups. But arm a bunch of 18-year-old boys, and pretty soon, they devolve into gangs over time. Other gangs come in, mafias come in, and they offer to protect people from the other criminals and from the police. Unlike the state, the criminals often try to buy legitimacy. They give charity. They solve disputes. Sometimes, they even build subsidized housing.
The last stage of privilege violence happens when regular people start committing a significant portion of the murder. Bar fights and neighborhood arguments turn deadly when violence has become normal and repercussions have evaporated. To outsiders, the culture looks depraved, as if something is deeply wrong with those people. But any country can become this violent when the government is, by turns, absent and predatory.
Actually, that's not quite true — it takes one more step for this level of violence to reign. It takes mainstream society to ignore the problem. You'd think that would be impossible, that violence at this level would be unbearable, but it's actually quite bearable to people like you and me. That's because, in every society in the world, even the most violent, violence is highly concentrated. It happens to people on the wrong side of town, people who are poor, often darker, often from groups that are marginalized, groups that mainstream society can separate ourselves from.
Violence is so concentrated that we're shocked when the pattern deviates. In Washington, DC, in 2001, a young white college-educated intern went missing after a hike in Northwest DC, and her case was in the papers nearly every day. On the other side of town, a black man had been killed every other day that year. Most of those cases never made the papers even once.
Middle class society buys their way out of violence. We live in better neighborhoods. Some people buy private security. And we also tell ourselves a story. We tell ourselves that most of the people who are killed are probably involved in crime themselves. By believing that somehow some people deserve to be murdered, otherwise good people allow ourselves to live in places where life chances are so deeply skewed. We allow ourselves. Because, after all, what else can you do?
Well, it turns out, quite a lot. Because violence today is not largely the result of war but is because of rotten politics in our democracies, regular voters are the greatest force for change.
Consider the transformation of Bogotá. In 1994, Colombia's incoming president was caught taking millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the Cali drug cartel, and the capital was overrun with gangs and paramilitary groups. But fed-up voters overcame really rabid partisanship, and they delivered nearly two-thirds of the vote to an independent candidate, enough to really overcome business as usual. On Mayor Mockus's first day in office, the police barely bothered to even brief him on homicide, and when he asked why, they just shrugged and said, "It's just criminals killing criminals." The corrupt city council wanted to give police even more impunity for brutality. It's a really common tactic that's used worldwide when politicians want to posture as tough on crime but don't actually want to change the status quo.
And research shows it backfires all over the world. If you throw a lot of low-level offenders into jails, usually already overcrowded jails, they learn from each other and they harden. They start to control the prisons, and from there, the streets.
Instead, Mockus insisted that police begin investigating every death. He fought the right-wing city council, and he abandoned SWAT-style police tactics. And he fought the left-wing unions and fired thousands of predatory cops. Honest police were finally free to do their jobs.
Mockus then challenged citizens. He asked the middle class to stop opting out of their city, to follow traffic laws and otherwise behave as if they shared the same community of fate. He asked the poor to uphold social norms against violence, often at immense personal risk. And he asked the wealthy to give 10 percent more in taxes, voluntarily. Sixty-three thousand people did. And at the end of the decade that spanned Mayor Mockus's two terms in office, homicide in Bogotá was down 70 percent.
People in places with the most violence, whether it's Colombia or the United States, can make the biggest difference. The most important thing we can do is abandon the notion that some lives are just worth less than others, that someone deserves to be raped or murdered, because after all, they did something, they stole or they did something to land themselves in prison where that kind of thing happens. This devaluing of human life, a devaluing we barely admit even to ourselves, is what allows the whole downward spiral to begin. It's what allows a bullet shot in a gang war in Rio to lodge in the head of a two-year-old girl climbing on a jungle gym nearby. And it's what allows a SWAT team hunting for a meth dealer in Georgia to throw a flash bang grenade into the crib of a little boy, exploding near his face and maiming him for life. The fact is, most violence everywhere happens to people on the wrong side of town at the wrong time, and some of those people are from communities that we consider quite different. Some of them are people who have done horrible things. But reducing violence begins with privileging every human life, both because it's right and because only by prizing each life as worthy of at least due process, can we create societies in which the lives of innocents are safe.
Second, recognize that today, inequality within our countries is a vastly greater cause of violence than war between countries. Now, inequality leads to violence for a whole host of reasons, but one of them is that it lets us separate ourselves from what's happening on the other side of town. Those of us who are middle-class or wealthy, who are benefiting from these systems, have to change them at immense cost to ourselves. We have to pay enough taxes and then demand that our governments put good teachers in other kids' schools and well-trained police to protect other peoples' neighborhoods.
But, of course, that's not going to do any good if the government is stealing the money or fueling the violence, and so we also need better politicians with better incentives. The fact is, we actually know a lot about what it takes to reduce violence. It's policies like putting more cops in the few places where most violence occurs. But they don't fit easily into the boxes of the Left or the Right, and so you need really honest politicians who are willing to buck knee-jerk partisanship and implement solutions. And if we want good politicians to run, we need to start respecting politicians.
There's also a lot we can do to fight privilege violence in other countries. The most violent regimes tend to be fueled by drugs, and then they launder the profits through financial systems in New York and London, through real-estate transactions, and through high-end resorts. If you use drugs, know your supply chain top to bottom, or admit the amount of pain you're willing to cause others for your own pleasure. Meanwhile, I would love to see one of those tourist sites team up with investigative journalists and create a little tiny icon — right next to the one for free WiFi and if a place has a swimming pool, there could be a little tiny gun for "likely criminal money-laundering front."
But until then, if you're booking a place in a dangerous country, whether that's Jamaica or New Orleans, do a little web research, see if you can see any criminal ties. And, to make that easier, support legislation that makes our financial systems more transparent — things like banning anonymous company ownership.
Now, this all probably sounds pretty quixotic, kind of like recycling your cans, just a tiny drop in the ocean of a gigantic problem, but that's actually a misconception. Homicide has been falling for centuries. Battle deaths have been dropping for decades. In places where people have demanded change, violent death has fallen, from Colombia to New York City, where homicide is down 85 percent since 1990. The fact is, violence will always be with us, but it's not a constant. It has been falling for centuries, and it could fall further faster. Could it drop by 25 percent in the next quarter century, a third? Many of us actually think it could.
I think of all the kids who'd grow up with their dads, all the families that get their sisters back, their brothers. All it needs is one small push. It needs us to care.