Q and A with Randolph Roth about his new book American Homicide

For an academic book, Randolph Roth’s new book American Homicide has received a ton of press. Newsweek, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post have all written reviews. In many ways, it’s not surprising. Roth’s book–published by the Belknap Press of Harvard–is one of the most definitive comparative studies of homicide in the United States ever published, looking at murder from colonial times to the present. The book looks particularly at the why why the United States has become arguably the world’s most homicidal society.

Roth’s book has received good reviews. “A vast investigation of murder, in the aggregate, and over time,” wrote the New Yorker. I emailed a few questions to Roth before the holidays. His answers are below.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I initially set out to write a book on northern New England’s nonviolent culture, to understand why northern New Englanders were virtually non-homicidal. As I gathered data beyond the time period I first studied, however, I discovered that they were not: by the mid-nineteenth century they had become more homicidal than their counterparts in England, Canada, and other Western nations.

However, when I separated by type the homicides I had found in New Hampshire and Vermont, I discovered that there were distinct patterns of homicide that made sense in terms of New England’s history. Murders of children by adult relatives or caregivers followed a long, smooth curve that was the inverse of the birth-rate: high fertility meant a low child murder rate and low fertility meant a high murder rate. Marital homicides and romance homicides jumped suddenly in the 1830s and 1840s: decades in which jobs opened to women in education and industry and in which the ideal of companionate marriage took hold. Homicides among unrelated adults peaked during periods of political turmoil: the Revolution, the Embargo crisis, and the sectional crisis. It appeared (as I put it in a grant application in 1997) that “state breakdowns and political crises of legitimacy produce surges in nondomestic homicides and that the restoration of order and legitimacy produces declines in such homicides.” The same pattern was evident on the national level in the twentieth century. It appeared that the stronger sense of national unity during World War II and the Cold War may have reduced homicide rates through the 1950s, wheras the political crisis of the 1960s and 1970s may have contributed to soaring homicide rates.

Thanks to support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I was able to study other places in the United States to see if the patterns I found in northern New England were typical and if patterns elsewhere coincided with similar political events. They were, and they did. That is how a book on northern New England became a comparative, interregional history of homicide in the United States from colonial times to the present.

What was the biggest surprise?

I was surprised that people’s views about the legitimacy of government and about their fellow citizens correlate so strongly with how often they kill unrelated adults—much more strongly than other factors such as guns, poverty, drugs, race, or a permissive justice system. The predisposition to murder really does appear to be rooted in these feelings and beliefs. Although they seem impossibly remote from murder, they appear to hold the key to understanding why the United States is so homicidal today.
I was also surprised that the patterns of different kinds of homicide were so distinct: that marital homicides, romance homicides, and child homicides follow such different patterns from homicides among unrelated adults. Only homicides among unrelated persons correlate with feelings and beliefs about government and society.

Finally, I was surprised to learn how different murder rates in the past were from present-day murder rates. For example, in the early nineteenth century the North and the mountain South were among the least homicidal places in the Western world. Prior to the twentieth century blacks were less homicidal than whites. I had no idea, either, that marital homicides and romance homicides were so rare in the colonial and early national period. That’s the great thing about historical research: more often than not, it confounds our expectations and forces us to rethink our assumptions about the past and present.

What’s it like studying murder? As I read the book, I found myself getting numb to homicide. Does that happen to you? How do you prevent it? 

I have a lot of friends and colleagues who deal with violence: homicide detectives, trauma surgeons, forensic pathologists, toxicologists, firearms experts, prosecuting attorneys, family advocates, and scholars. Homicides never really become routine. We each know thousands of cases by heart, and we run through them over and over, trying to figure out what could have been done to prevent them or to convict perpetrators who escaped justice. And there are cases that shock even the most experienced people. It is difficult to discuss the force it would take to snap the flexible backbone of a two-year old child, or how a suspect revealed he was a deer hunter by the way he cut up a young woman’s body. I try to remain mindful of what I am dealing with by remembering that almost every murder is the source of unimaginable pain to someone who cared about the victim or the perpetrator.

In the New Yorker’s review of your book, they write: “The implications of Roth’s argument are, as he realizes, distressing. Democracy requires dissent. If a high American murder rate is a function of not placing our trust in government, are we doomed to endure a high murder rate?” How would you answer that question? Does the answer really go all the way to the White House?

Dissent and debate can be compatible with low homicide rates. America was probably the least homicidal society in the Western world in the 1830s and early 1840s, despite the fact that Jacksonian politics were extremely combative. The reviewer for the New Yorker missed that point.

But when a dedicated minority challenges the legitimacy of government and of fundamental social institutions, as happened during the Revolution, the struggle against slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, and the civil rights struggle of the twentieth century, the homicide rate among unrelated adults will increase, at least in the short run. Political struggles that destabilize government, polarize political debate, delegitimize institutions, and turn citizens against each other can have devastating effects, as the Revolution, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and the upheavals of the 1960s attest. In the long run, however, such political struggles can lead to lower homicide rates, as the Revolution did in the North and the mountain South, by creating a more cohesive, legitimate, democratic, inclusive, and stable society.
Democracy requires dissent, but it also requires a commitment to democratic ideals. Introducing those ideals into societies bound by caste and class is profoundly disruptive. But in the long run, overcoming caste and class distinctions can make societies more democratic, stable, and non-violent.

The subhead to the final chapter is: “Can America’s murder problem be solved?” And while the book is some 475 pages long, you only devote a dozen or so pages to a potential solution. Why? And do you really think America’s murder problem can be solved?

I’m a social science historian, and my primary goal was to identify and understand patterns of human behavior in the past. In talking about a potential solution I only wanted to point out that if the past is any indication, homicide rates will fall when we have what Richard Hofstadter referred to as comity—a moral and social cohesiveness that transcends differences over politics, religion, gender, class, race, ethnicity, etc. I do think politicians can play a role in promoting comity. Obviously, centrists who eschew polarization are more likely to be able to do that than those who demonize their opponents. But when political divisions run deep, even great leaders like Abraham Lincoln may be unable to change the feelings and beliefs that cause violence.

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