A history of violence
Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza

It’s easy to romanticise the past, but numbers tell a different story. This is the concluding part of yesterday’s long form

  • Even with the advent of modern weapons, death rates are lower now 
    Photo- BIGSTOCK

Moving past fiction, a brief glance through history does resonate with the central thesis here. Starting off in the prehistoric era, we come across numerous cases of archaeological discoveries of well-preserved bodies that seem to have met a macabre demise.

A more famous example would be Lindow Man, his body dated between 2AD and 199AD. The body even retained the doomed soul’s brain and last meal, hence providing the archaeologist with the chance to conduct an extensive study.

Forensic reports indicated that the poor man was struck viciously on the head resulting in bone fracture, strangled so violently that his neck was broken, and, for additional measure, his throat was slit.

While experts are divided on whether it was plain murder or ritualistic sacrifice, I am fairly certain that consensus can be reached that this barbarity was nothing less, if not more, than what see on the evening news. Even though it should be more disturbing to know that ritualistic human sacrifice is a plausible scenario.

In fact, human sacrifice was practiced in many different cultures on different occasions with the purpose, usually, to appease the gods.

The Aztec, Maya, and ancient Egyptian civilisations, to name a few, have partaken in this inhumane act.

Moving to the more recent medieval era, we could still see our ancestors’ moral depravity.

Some of the more memorable features of this era were knights. They have become, ironically, the symbol of valiance and the righteous warrior. Terms such as “chivalry” and “gallantry” originated from them.

Yet, those who are acquainted with history know them for the hypocrites they were.

Their order shamelessly massacred in the Crusades, in feudal Europe they would kill peasants without much reservation, and they fought each other for women -- the victor could take another knight’s lady in any manner deemed fit, and promised to woo their ladies by pledging to rape beautiful women along their exploits.

In keeping up with the immoral attitudes of the time, torture was another celebrated orgy of violence. In the modern era, torture is used increasingly by despotic governments, mostly in a clandestine fashion, and carried out in the most extreme cases as means of extorting sensitive information. It is usually condemned nowadays.

In the medieval era, it was carried out very matter-of-factly, administrated for absurd trivial infractions, and often shown as public spectacle.

The men who conceived of the instruments of torture were foremost experts in human anatomy and psychology, and not only utilised the latest that technology had on offer, but indulged in their artistic side too, as evident in the intricate details and ornamentation that went in their makings.

The naming scheme itself reflected the fact that these people did not see the process as solemn and an ugly necessity. A few examples would include Judas’ Cradle, The Spanish Tickler, and Heretic’s Fork. It is best if the gruesome details are spared.

This cursory review does drive home the point that gruesome violence is not only a modern invention, but rather, was omnipresent in our history.

But perhaps this does not prove we are any more peaceful than we used to be. Yes, it seems violence did exist in the past. Yes, we have become more sensitive to it. But perhaps violence has found only new ways to be expressed.

Worse yet, recent technological advances allow us to carry out war on an unprecedented scale. My readers will no doubt want to remind me of the nuclear stockpile hoarded up by Uncle Sam and his arch-nemesis.

But we ought to stop thinking in absolute numbers.

Granted, more people die in recent conflicts, but then again, our population has risen considerably.

The intelligent approach is to see what fraction of people succumb to violent death.

And here, let’s resort to some stats. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Ourselves, which has provided me with the bulk of factual information so far, did crunch some numbers.

Here are some of the results: His estimate of violent death rates for skeletons dug out of archaeological sites from a sample of pre-state societies yielded an average of 15%.

In comparison, the death toll of warfare in the US in the year 2005 accounted for 0.0004% of the population.

If we were to throw in domestic homicide, the figure would rise up to 0.008%, which is a substantial increase but nowhere near 15%.

Now, if we are to zoom out to include the whole world, then the Human Security Report Project estimates that, in the same year, political violence -- terrorism, genocide, and such barbarity -- claimed 0.0003% of the populace.

While this only took into account direct death, a 20-fold increase to factor in indirect death such as due to famine, disease, etc, would not bring the number even close to the 1% mark, let alone the 15% mark.

Should we glance at the last century -- a century that has witnessed two war worlds, the Korean War, the plight of Vietnam, and even more disturbingly, the ever-increasing applications of technology in the affairs of war -- the death rate would be around 0.7%.

To put matters on even footing, it is best to resort to estimates of past sate societies. Estimates listed in the book for the Mexican empires of Aztec and Maya prior to Columbus, lists a figure of 5%.

In the 17th century, with its bloody wars of religion, violent warfare-related deaths accounted for 2% of the death toll. The pattern so far seen is a reduction in violence.

Of course, a more thorough look is required to set forth a rigorous numerical analysis, and there are inherent risks in trying to establish a trend with so little data.

Those who demand a more thorough look are recommended to give Steven Pinker’s book a read. I reckon the facts quoted so far provide a compelling case.

Hence, far from spiralling irreversibly into a vicious cycle of violence, it seems we have enjoyed its overall decline.

Though there is no guarantee this will continue indefinitely, it does no harm to merely acknowledge this. Nor should this acknowledgment trivialise the deplorable barbarity society faces, but rather, should bolster our spirit in addressing them. 

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Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza

Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza writes from Iran.