Randolph Roth


On the ultimate causes of various kinds of homicide

Cover Interview of December 06, 2011

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported in December 2009 that the murder rate fell by 10 percent in the United States during the first six months of 2009. That was its steepest drop since the mid-1990s. The decline was widespread, but it was larger in metropolitan areas (14.4 percent) than in non-metropolitan areas (8.5 percent). The United States, and especially its cities, suddenly became less murderous between November, 2008, and January, 2009, and remained that way through June.

Not all criminologists were surprised by the sudden decline in homicide. In fact, in 2008 a number of people, myself included, predicted that the homicide rate would decline (especially in cities) if Barack Obama won the election, because the inauguration of the first black president and the passing of the Bush administration would re-legitimize the government in the eyes of many Americans during the first few months of 2009.

Why does faith in government have a profound impact on interpersonal violence? How people feel about the government plays an important role in determining how they feel about themselves and society. If people believe that their government shares their values, speaks for them and acts on their behalf, they feel empowered, have greater self-respect and gain confidence in their dealings with people outside their families. When people feel that the government is antagonistic toward them and they question its legitimacy, especially on the national level, they can feel frustrated, alienated, and dishonored. And those feelings, in turn, can alter hormone levels and stimulate the hostile, defensive, and predatory feelings that lead to violence against friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

Trust in government is not the only prerequisite for lower rates of violence, but it is a powerful one, and we have now traced a persistent correlation between such trust and low homicide rates through the histories of dozens of nations reaching back at least as far as the seventeenth century.