Having recently returned from a two-week trip to Greece, I continue to ponder the provocative conversation I had with a taxi driver in Athens. On a late-night ride back to Athens after returning from the islands to the port of Piraeus, George the taxi driver, a Greek raised in Boston, had a captive audience for his opinions on what is wrong with Athens these days.
"We have crime crime," he stated. "I mean we have always had crime, but violent crime was unheard of until recently." He further clarified that pick-pockets have always been prolific in Athens but stated that beyond the inconvenience of that sort of petty crime he never had any problems with his children being out and about at all hours of the night because violent crime was unknown. He went on to say that in Athens and the surrounding suburbs, a metropolitan area of more than five million people, that there are less than twenty murders a year. "But last week, someone was killed over a pair of sunglasses. Can you imagine that?" he asked.
I could imagine that. In fact, I have handled more than a few prosecutions where a murder occurred over some trivial item or trinket, or for some other senseless reason. I have grown weary of trying to explain to a jury the whys of some of the senseless crimes that I have seen, or rather trying to explain that often there are no whys that make any sense. But rather than belabor the point with George I just listened as he blamed the economy and mostly foreigners from impoverished countries for the problems in Greece. He went on to say that the reason he relocated to Greece in the early 80's (although he maintains a house in New Hampshire) was the difference between the crime rates in Greece and the United States.
Despite George's laments, the point that I took away from our conversation was the astonishingly low violent crime rate, especially homicide rate, for such a large metropolitan area. I attempted to corroborate George's figures before writing this post, but there is little data available giving exact numbers of homicides in Athens and surrounding areas, at least in terms of as conventionally represented as the number of murder victims per hundred thousand people in the population per year. What I was able to document is that the numbers of violent crimes in Athens although rising are indeed close to what George alleged.
So, why is the murder rate in America so different than what they have in Greece and, indeed, in most other European countries? Why does a city the size of Detroit have a murder tally more than twenty times higher than a city more than five times larger in terms of population?
Sure there are differences between the United States and Europe in rates of how crimes are reported to the police, recorded by them and in differences in the rules by which multiple offenses are counted. And there are differences in the legal definitions and in the legal institutions and how they deal with and characterize crimes. But that in no way accounts for the vast differences between the reported murder rates in many large urban areas in America and our European counterparts.
It goes without saying that the murder rate reflects basic sociocultural and economic factors. Poverty, the availability of guns, and the media emphasis on a culture of drugs and violence all contribute to an increasingly violent society and an increased murder rate as a result. But does poverty actually breed crime and violence? Do socioeconomic variables determine whether or not a person is more likely to take a human life and whether or not a person has a cognizance of the value of a human life?
The truth is that in most cases murderers are not normal law-abiding citizens. They are highly aberrant individuals characterized by felony records, alcohol and or drug dependence and other deviant characteristics. So why in the U.S. do we have such a comparatively high rate of aberrant persons who are willing to take the ultimate step and take a human life? Do we as a culture value life less than our European counterparts, or do we have a systemic problem that results in an increased tendency to react in a violent manner?
I'm jet lagged and I have no answers. Do you?