War, terror, murder: deaths hit record lows

Long Peace: There has been a small rise in war deaths since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

Are we on the way to a state of permanent global peace? News from war zones fills our newspapers. But behind the headlines the facts tell us that the world is growing ever less violent.

From civilians battered by bombing raids in Syria to the brutal attacks of Islamic State terrorists, the harrowing reports of war and suffering that blare out from news bulletins can make the world seem infinitely chaotic and dangerous.

But these sensational events only tell part of the story. In fact, some think that deeper trends (which often go unnoticed) suggest we should be much more optimistic about the state of the world.

Harvard philosopher and psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that humanity is in the midst of a wholesale “retreat from violence,” and that our current age could be the most peaceful in history.

While some brutal conflicts make headlines, Pinker charts a steep overall decline in the rate of war deaths since the second world war.

For other nations it is often terrorism, not war, that threatens security. Yet even here there is an encouraging trend. According to the Global Terrorism Index, there was a 22% reduction in terror deaths worldwide between 2014 and 2017.

This may be scant comfort for citizens of the USA and the UK, where there were several high-profile attacks last year. Yet the numbers in these countries tell a similar story. In the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, there have been fewer terror-related deaths in both countries than in the 15 years before 9/11.

Nor is it only deaths from war and terror that are on the decline.

In the UK the murder rate has fallen 29% since 2000. And while the rate of killings in the USA rose slightly in 2015 and 2016, it still remains far below its peak in the 1980s and early 90s. Furthermore, violent crime in general has plunged in big cities like New York — some call it a “great crime decline”.

Meanwhile, when crimes are committed, society is becoming more merciful toward its perpetrators. In 2016 the number of executions worldwide fell by 37% compared to the previous year.

But is the world really safer than ever?

World peace?

Quite possibly, some argue. Our perceptions are often warped by a modern culture which favours drama — and reports of things not happening seldom make the news. But take a look at long-term trends, and a striking move away from violence is revealed. The real question is will this “civilising process” continue. If big nations can keep finding common ground, it just might.

Nonsense, others respond. The statistics do not show the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula or Europe’s eastern borders. In both cases big nations could quite easily clash and spark lethal wars. What is more, such blind optimism makes us less likely to solve the conflicts that still afflict parts of the world — conflicts which cause unimaginable suffering to those involved.

You Decide

  1. Is bad news more interesting than good news? If so, why?
  2. Are humans naturally good?


  1. What do we mean by the word “conflict”? Write down as many ways as you can think of in which it can occur, big or small. Do you think that all these types of conflict will come to an end?
  2. Do some research on the supposed decline in violence across the world. Use the resources in Become An Expert to help you. Once you have discovered some facts and read some opinions, write an answer to the following question: “Is world peace inevitable?”

Some People Say...

“There's no problem on the planet that can't be solved without violence.”

— Andrew Young

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Currently, there are four ongoing wars that caused over 10,000 deaths in 2017. These are in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mexico (the drug war). In terms of murder rates, there are significant disparities between nations. For example, in 2015 El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world with 108 murders per 100,000 people. By contrast, the figure for Singapore that year was 0.25.
What do we not know?
Figures regarding war deaths are estimates and based on the best available information. One area where information is lacking is the rate of executions worldwide. This is because several countries that use capital punishment do not release figures on the number of deaths, including China, Vietnam and Belarus.

Word Watch

The Syrian civil war began in 2011. So far over 400,000 people are thought to have been killed, with millions more made refugees.
In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature, published by Penguin Books.
See graphic.
In the UK, 22 people were killed in a bomb blast in Manchester. Less than two weeks later, eight more people died in a van-and-knife attack in London. Eight people also died in Manhattan after a terrorist drove a truck into pedestrians.
Four planes were hijacked by terrorists. Two were flown into New York’s World Trade Center towers and one into the Pentagon. The other crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. In total, 2,996 people died during the attacks.
Than in
According to Ipsos Mori. See the link in Become An Expert for more details.
According to Ipsos Mori.
According to Amnesty International.
Civilising process
Phrase coined by sociologist Norbert Elias. It describes how behaviours develop in society over time, with one phenomenon being the gradual reduction in violence.
Civilizing process
Phrase coined by sociologist Norbert Elias. It describes how behaviors develop in society over time, with one phenomenon being the gradual reduction in violence.

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