How Much Violence Is Being Committed In Your Name?

My neighborhood is a tranquil place—the sort of area where you watch images of war and oppression from far away. Those columns of black smoke, the men riding by with their Kalashnikovs at at the ready, seem to come from another world. And, as always in such situations, such unfamiliar people are easily made to feel as if they are Not Like Us. We, after all, get into political shouting matches and root for opposing teams. They shoot and bomb each other. What is wrong with such people? But the differences between a peaceful street in, say, Belgium and a war-torn street in Iraq are deceptive. We live in a single world of organized mayhem. It's just that those of us who live in comfortable local circumstances are separated from all the actual and potential brutality that is required to maintain our quiet oases.

How to express this, and analyze it? Perhaps we could use data to put all the world's collective violence—the work of armies, police forces, bandits, guerrilla bands, terrorists and other any other organization that wields lethal force—on a single scale. A single metric might be the amount that any population spends, per person, on committing violence in the name of that population. I'll take myself as an example. I live in New York City. So, let's take the annual budget of the police force here. In 2014 its budget (pdf) was $4.75 billion. Of course, most of that money was spent on non-violent activities, like detective work, traffic enforcement, school safety, refurbishing dowdy buildings and so on and on. Let's assume for the sake of argument that only 10 percent of the budget actually supports violence—acts in which the police beat, choke, taze, shoot or otherwise hurt people (or seriously threaten to do so). If that's correct, that's $460 million, divided by 8 million people, or a little less than $60 a year per person.

In addition, according to this report (pdf) New York state spent another $5 billion in 2013-2014 on public safety—state troopers, prison guards, the national guard, anti-terrorism investigators, and so on. This spending covered disaster preparedness and relief, and of course much of the work of these units of government does not involve hurting others (the state's public-safety budget also includes all it does to help veterans). So again let's assume 90 percent of the money does not buy bullets or tasers or pay for time spent inflicting harm on others. That leaves $500 million, divided by 19.65 million New York State residents, or $25 per person spent for violent acts or the credible threat of violent acts.

Now we come to the big, ahem, guns. The United States defense budget for the coming fiscal year is $495.6 billion. Divided by a population of 317 million, that's roughly $1,500 per person. But, again, defense spending encompasses disaster relief, basic scientific research, medical care, pensions—all manner of activities that do not involve firing bullets into people or dropping bombs on them. Let's take, again, my quite rough guess that only 10 percent of spending supports organized lethality. That's $150 per person on the Federal level.

According to this very rough guess, them, as I walk down my peaceful Brooklyn street, watching the children play without a care, various levels of government that represent me are spending about $240 a year—or $20 a month—on me alone, to pay for violent acts. To buy and maintain drones and missiles, fighter jets and battleships, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and service revolvers, bullets, tasers, pepper spray, tasers and other tools of organized lethality. And, of course, for the pay and maintenance of the people who use them. For my family of three, this collective commitment to violence costs $60 a month.

Now, this calculation is a thought experiment. An analysis based on really careful parsing of government spending might come out lower, or higher, by a lot. Moreover, I haven't allowed for the fact that within the nation police don't protect all 317 million Americans equally. The police in any given area are spending their time protecting some people against others. That this line of protection is heavily racialized is increasingly obvious. How to work that fact into the estimates is not clear to me.

But more accurate figures, whatever they might come to, would still represent a very large amount of annual spending for the purpose of either threatening or inflicting injury on people all over the world, from Raqqa to Rikers. I don't write this to argue that all of those people are innocent victims, or that we should never do violence. But we should face up to the world we really live in, and the things that are done in it, in our name. We should not be like the young student in Tolstoy's After the Dance, content with life and full of romantic notions, because he doesn't see the brutality all around him. The angry man in the Mad Max truck on the evening news is no alien. In a bloody, angry world, we are all playing the same game.

Illustration: Scene from After the Dance, via Wikimedia.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.