Are things getting worse?

With the depressing news of yet another atrocity, this time against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I thought I'd take a moment to ask whether the world is becoming a worse place, at least in terms of mass murder.  Note this is different to serial murder.  A serial killer kills one person, then waits a long time before killing another.  Mass murder is killing many in a short space of time.

I think it is getting worse.  The solo mass murderer, or death delivered by a handful of deranged people, is a modern phenomenon.

I can't recall from the ancient world, or even the mediaeval, or the Renaissance, or even in Elizabethan times, a single instance of mass murder being conducted by one man acting on his own.

The reason is easy to see.  In the time of my hero Nicolaos, the most powerful individual weapon available was a bronze sword.  A nutter could kill at most a few people in the street before being taken down.

And a mass murderer would be taken down quickly.  In a world without a police force, citizens were naturally inclined to intervene when they saw a crime being committed.  Surviving court cases from classical Athens that involve violence in public always mention passers-by running into the action.   Not something you see much these days.

But a modern mass murderer can do a whole lot better than a bronze sword.  The growth in power of lethal force that can be carried by a single individual is incredibly important.

The same nutter today would have a couple of automatic weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammo, a pouch of grenades, and maybe a few bombs to plant. He could kill hundreds.

Then there's the unfortunate fact that there are more people inclined to mass murder.

The population today is 7 billion.   In Nico’s time it was roughly 200 million. The percentage of the population inclined to mass murder is small and probably hasn't changed, but population growth means there are thirty-five times more dangerous maniacs walking the planet today than in the ancient world.

Never mind that there are also thirty-five times more good guys.  Good guys don't commit crimes, good news never moves, and bad news spreads like wild fire.

When you add that many potential mass murderers to the extra lethal technology they can carry, it doesn't look good.


Anthony said...

Forth Generation Warfare focuses on soft targets. There is little relation to true 4GW (aka stateless warfare) to a criminal action by wide-eyed killers with guns causing as much collateral damage as possible, other than the weapons themselves.

This atrocity was done by a highly-trained pair of commandos targeting certain individuals. This was not a mass-murder/serial/deranged psychopath crime.

I do share your observation on bystanders, as 4GW is much less effective with an armed populous. For example, the executed policeman was unarmed.

And that it is not to say that your original point isn't valid: it is easier today to do more damage in a shorter amount of time, but it works both ways. There are both more lethal weapons and more targets, but a focus on the weapons used is ill-advised. One of the most horrific modern-day massacres occurred with a handful of box-cutters and two planes.

Orange said...

I think that the closest analogy to contemporary terrorism would be the Sicarii, who fought the Romans in 1st century Judea. They were, depending upon ones view, violent religious fundamentalists who distorted Judaism, or else freedom fighters against an oppressive imperialist empire.

From Amy Zalman's page:

As political scientist and terrorist expert David C. Rapaport has pointed out, the Sicarii were distinct in primarily targeting other Jews considered to be either collaborators or quiescent in the face of Roman rule.

They attacked, in particular, Jewish notables and elites associated with the priesthood. This strategy distinguishes them from the Zealots, who aimed their violence against Romans.

These tactics were described by Josephus as beginning in the CE 50s:

… a different type of bandits sprang up in Jersualem, the so-called sicarii, who murdered men in broad daylight in the heart of the city. Especially during the festivals they would mingle with the crowd, carrying short daggers concealed under their clothing, with which they stabbed their enemies. Then when they fell, the murderers would join in the cries of indignation and, through this plausible behavior, avoided discovery. (Quoted in Richard A. Horsley, "The Sicarii: Ancient Jewish "Terrorists," The Journal of Religion, October 1979.)

The Sicarii operated primarily in the urban environment of Jerusalem, including within the Temple. However, they also committed attacks in villages, which they also raided for plunder and set on fire in order to create fear among Jews who acquiesced or collaborated with Roman rule. They also kidnapped notables or others as leverage for the release of their own members held prisoner.

The Sicarii are said to have massacred 700 women and children in one raid, on the village of Ein Gedi.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, do you know, I'd never heard of the Sicarii before?

Thanks very much for that info!

Yes, there does seem a certain similarity.