Homicide and the history of life on the streets of America

August 1, 1997

Roger Lane tells Tim Cornwell how murder rates in the United States reveal historical trends

Homicide is history, argues Roger Lane, and, just like history, repeats itself. Modern murder rates in the United States are shockingly high, but are probably about half what they were in medieval Britain. Then, as now, the records suggest, 90 per cent of the killers were male and about 75 per cent of the victims, typically young and healthy. Killings tended to happen among people who knew each other, and more often in the summer and on days off. Jurors' prejudices were largely the same, whatever the legal code: they were toughest on robbery and murders of strangers, and kindest to women.

Crime is treated by every panicked generation as a contemporary phenomenon, the stuff of shockers on the nightly news, but homicide is as old as Cain and Abel. Lizzie Borden's acquittal of the brutal murder of her parents was secured by a high-priced legal team which picked holes in the blood evidence. But, like O. J. Simpson a little over 100 years later, she was found guilty in the court of public opinion.

Roger Lane, professor of history at Haverford College in Philadelphia, has turned a childhood love of true crime mysteries, including the celebrated Borden case, into a serious academic pursuit. His first book on the subject was "a history of the cops. Then I began to look into crooks". At 63, his latest offering, something of a magnum opus, is Murder in America, published this summer by Ohio State University Press.

"I'm interested in murder as a historian because murder reveals things about what is happening historically," he says. "If we want to find out about ordinary people, murder trials give us a window into people who don't normally write: what they were doing, what they were wearing, how they were acting."

His book is more than a collection of stories and crime statistics, though it has a healthy sampling of both. "Murder is part of the wider record," he says. Homicide frames and fills in history.

Nowhere is that truer than the US, and its culture dripping with guns and violence. Britain has had forms of gun control since the 16th century; the homicide rates of American and British cities begin to diverge sharply in the 1840s, when Samuel Colt's revolver became available. "One of the problems in the US is that we tend to think of ourselves as tough guys," says Lane. "We would like to be the Marlboro Man without the smokes." In the 1990s, many states in the union have followed Texas and Florida in making it easier to carry concealed firearms.

In the past 20 years, the US murder rate has hovered at between nine and ten homicides a year per 100,000 population. In Japan it is less than one per 100,000, and only slightly more in Germany, France and England. In England, the risk of being murdered by a stranger is even smaller than these figures show. While in the US, 12 per cent of homicides involve immediate family, here the figure is about half (though it may be distorted by divorced and unwed couples).

Homicide holds a mirror to American society. The Redcoats responsible for the Boston Massacre were tried for manslaughter. America's "prickly armed individualism" was born in frontier jurisdictions. Al Capone was the product of Prohibition; in the Great Depression, a father of five was shot for trying to steal a bottle of milk. In the glorious 1950s, held up by the likes of Newt Gingrich in sepia-coloured sentimentalism, the murder rate in postwar America sank to its lowest ever. Bullets claimed the life of John F. Kennedy, ushering in a dislocated decade where the murder rate soared to new highs.

Slavery officially ended with the civil war in 1865, threats of violent death underpinned segregated southern society, requiring "continual murder, terrorism and lynching", Lane writes. There were 3,700 lynchings between 1889 and 1930. Violence directed at blacks, by either race, went ignored by the law. This legal disregard bred a culture of violent self-defence whose child is the streetgang shootings of today, argues Lane, where people die for showing "disrespect". It is Lane's route to explaining why homicide among African-Americans has run steadily at about nine to ten times the rate for whites since serious record-keeping began in the 1920s and 30s.

After years of fitful attempts to break the back of violent crime, the US is finally making inroads. In the past five years, homicide rates have fallen steadily, sometimes dramatically; this year, the US is on course for the lowest rate since 1969. In New York "zero tolerance" policing, where arrests for minor offences such as public urination or smoking drugs allow police to check for weapons, have helped clear high-crime zones. In Los Angeles, civil injunctions are used to force named gang members off street corners. Conservatives will attribute the drop to tougher sentencing that has put more than a million in jail and several thousand on death row; Clintonites will point to the expanding job base.

But Lane derides "flip contemporary opinions" of either political colour, and, like several other crime experts, offers a warning. While crack dealers may have settled their turf wars, another drug is likely to emerge - methamphetamine, or speed, is already on the rise. A population blip - the children of the baby-boomers - will soon swell the numbers of teenagers, and the US cannot keep simply loading up its prisons. "Don't break out the champagne yet," he says.

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