Does Socially-Approved Killing Increase Criminal Homicide?
by Rachel MacNair
When killing is socially approved, does this provide a model for killing that isn’t? We offer evidence.
The Homicide Rate and Executions
Do executions deter murder? Since societies with executions still have murders, we know it’s not a complete deterrent. But are there fewer murders than there would be otherwise?
There’s another possibility: there could be more murders. Perhaps potential murderers don’t identify with the executed, but see them as villains just like others do. Instead, they identify with those they see as the purveyor of justice—the executioner. Wishing to see themselves as also purveyors of justice, they’ve just been given instructions on how to deal with individuals they see as villains in their own lives. This is the “legitimation of violence model.”
So, if the threat of executions has any impact at all compared to other punishments, which idea is right, based on the evidence?
Many countries have at different times abolished the death penalty altogether, so we can look at the homicide rate in the year before abolition and the year after. Dane Archer did this (see pp. 118–139 of his 1984 book, Violence and Crime in Cross-National Perspective).
If capital punishment is a better deterrent than long imprisonment, the homicide rate should usually have risen after abolition. In most cases, it decreased. The evidence favors the “legitimation of violence model.”
The Homicide Rate and War
The idea that wars might increase crime and lawlessness has been suggested from scholars ranging from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More to Machiavelli. Winston Churchill and Clarence Darrow suggested that World War I specifically had this effect. Sociologist Emile Durkheim noted a sharp rise in the homicide rate after the Franco-Prussian War.
In the same book as the study on executions, Dane Archer found that, when the difference between prewar and postwar homicide rates was calculated, there was a very large upsurge in homicide rates (see pp. 63–97).
Since some combatant nations did show unchanged rates or decreases, Archer looked at what the differences between nations were. The main difference was in the size of the wars. Nations with larger combat losses showed homicide increases much more frequently than nations with less extreme losses. While both victorious and defeated nations showed homicide increases, the victorious nations were more likely to do so.
Why? Social disorganization? Then defeated nations should show more frequent increases than the victorious. So should those with worsened economies. Yet it was the opposite. Violent veterans? Perhaps some, but the increases in perpetrators occurred for both women and men and in all age groups
Archer proposes the most likely explanation is the legitimation of violence model. Civilians are influenced by the “model” of officially approved killing and destruction:
What all wars have in common is the unmistakable moral lesson that homicide is an acceptable, even praiseworthy, means to certain ends. It seems likely that this lesson will not be lost on at least some of the citizens in a warring nation. Wars, therefore, contain in particularly potent form all the ingredients necessary to produce imitative violence: Great numbers of violent homicides under official auspices and legitimation, with conspicuous praise and rewards for killing and the killers … Even though social scientists have in the past amassed impressive experimental evidence that violence can be produced through imitation or modeling, they have in general neglected the possibility that government—with its vast authority and resources—might turn out to be the most potent model of all.(pp. 66, 94)
The case for this model may be strengthened by noting that crime rates often go down during nonviolent campaigns. This hasn’t been subjected to as rigorous a study, but Gene Sharp does cite several instances in his 1973 book (pp. 789–793).
Homicide Rate and Abortion
One idea is that abortion would lower the criminal homicide rate by preventing the births of people inclined to commit murders, what with having been unwanted and being members of the underclass. This bit of prejudice against those in poverty, with a tinge of racism, doesn’t sit well with many.
But in support of the idea, statistics in the United States show that the homicide rate did in fact trend down in the 1990s, at about the point when those who would have been born in the 1970s, but because of Roe v. Wade weren’t born because they were aborted, would have been hitting their late teens. That’s when violent crimes are most likely to be committed.
This wasn’t a controlled experiment, and any number of things could account for it – but most especially, take note that the number of abortions were declining at the same time as the number of criminal homicides. It would be every bit as reasonable a theory that a high prevalence of people solving problems by killing someone in the womb was associated with someone solving problems by killing outside the womb. Whatever lowered the incidence of killing people in-utero could therefore also cause fewer people to kill ex-utero.
Given that there can be all kinds of explanations, neither theory can be confirmed without a controlled experiment. History doesn’t allow for this. But if the “legitimation of violence” model works in war and executions, might it also work with abortions?
Violent Crime and Female Feticide
In a report on scholarship entitled “Sex Ratios and Crime: Evidence from China,” authors report:
In 2005, 120 boys were born for every 100 girls in China, a surplus of one million boys . . . the social implications of a large number of men with little or no prospect of marriage are largely unknown. In this paper, we look at crime rates, which nearly doubled in the last two decades, and argue that male-biased sex ratios have contributed to this rise . . . we find that a 1 percent increase in the sex ratio raised violent and property crime rates by some 3.7 percent, suggesting that the sex imbalance may account for up to one-sixth of the overall rise in crime.
Homicide of Women Who Refused to Get Abortions
Here’s a list of dozens of pregnant women who’ve been murdered by or at the behest of the child’s father because she refused to get an abortion. To get on this 2012 list, these conditions were necessary:
1. The woman’s murderer was caught;
2. The motive being about her refusing to get an abortion was known somehow;
3. This got into court records or newspaper articles so that a search could find it.
Therefore, this list is undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg.
We may argue against forms of socially-approved killing on the grounds that killing is wrong and therefore shouldn’t be socially approved. Yet we also need to be aware that the story doesn’t stop there. Such killing sets an example. Therefore, the death toll is much higher than those whose targeting was socially approved.
For more of our blog posts on a similar theme, see: