Crime is the term we humans use to describe unfair competition, deception, theft or threats of violence to deprive someone of something to which they’re entitled. Other animals steal, philander, commit acts of aggression and hoodwink one another as humans do. Phototropism enables hardy plants to flourish while others, beneath their canopy, starve for sunlight. Vast adaptive repertoires for concealment, enticement and mimicry fill ethological textbooks, making natural selection and co-evolution (to borrow P.T. Barnum’s and Richard Dawkins’ phrasing) The Greatest Show on Earth. Most other animals ─ mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish primarily ─ to solve territorial or mating disputes, only battle or display long enough to decide who’s dominant. Even invertebrates, for the most part, stop short of killing their rivals. One of the reasons gun violence is so prevalent in America is an obscene access to firearms which renders physical strength and stamina nil in confrontations between alpha males, competing factions and kin groups.
While other animals collectively enforce and monitor conduct within groups, even ostracizing members who violate accepted norms, we humans uniquely codify rules on which societal cohesions depend. While other animals patrol territories, using chemical and audible “No Trespassing” signs to delineate them, written language, at least since Hammurabi, makes human laws and punishment less ambiguous, if varied among cultures. Common to all social groups, however, are variables affecting frequencies of transgressions. Limited resources, inequities, higher temperatures, reductions in policing, crises and disasters all contribute to increases in crime and competitive exclusion. Now, America’s polarizing politic has spawned rightwing radicals, spikes in hate crimes, and illegal caches of guns and ammunition (some stolen from the military and police) which authorities seem hesitant to confront. In the last year, despite flight lists below pre-pandemic levels, the FAA reported several thousand unruly passengers, 70 percent of whom refused to obey mask mandates. Fined $500,000 collectively, some received jail time and lifetime flight bans. One deranged passenger even spit into the mouth of an on-board child.
Countries least adverse to capitalism, permitting wealth to concentrate among the few, often exhibit higher frequencies of crime. Total U.S. crime per capita, especially homicides, far exceeds other developed nations. Violent and nonviolent lawbreaking here has been recorded since the 1600s, rates of which increased dramatically both after 1900 and the Second World War, peaking between the 1970s and mid-1990s. Since then, criminal activity has declined significantly. As the U.S. continues to grapple with COVID-19, however, shootings and homicides have elevated in cities, large and small, red and blue, protests against police violence or not. Economic upheavals caused by the pandemic, declining attitudes towards cops, and historic shortages of jobs and resources in poorer communities are contributing factors. But surging gun purchases, especially during the plague, top the list.
Possible explanations for U.S. crime reduction include legalized abortions, an aging population, rising income, migration, data-driven enforcement, cannabis decriminalization and expanded surveillance. Nonetheless, America’s jailed population has exploded since the 1980s. Compared to Norway’s prisons, which embrace rehab, foster interpersonal relationships between inmates and “contact officers,” and encourage social reintegration, U.S. lockups operate like penal colonies, profiting commensurately the more incarcerated they have. Recidivism rates here are thusly 3.5 times higher than Norway’s. Amplifications of extremism, aggression and moral relativism in America now grease that revolving door.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.