What Causes Murder?


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Murder U.S.A.


Some years ago I wrote a book entitled Murder:  An Analysis of its Forms, Conditions, and Causes.  At that time, the overall American murder rate was 5 per 100,000, while the European murder rate was only 1 per 100,000.  

This issue interested me because I had experienced the Nazi horrors beginning at a young age and always wondered why some of us can kill another human being.

Even a cursory examination of the murder rates across the world revealed that the European murder rate was only one fifth of the American murder rate, but that the South American rate of murder rate was much higher than that experienced in this country. 

Further investigation revealed that the south saw a good deal more killings than the north of the USA and that murder is much more common among blacks than whites. Men commit more murder than women and the poor kill more than middle class and upper class earners. Enlisted men are more likely to kill others than is true of officers and college graduates have a far lesser murder rate than high school graduates and/or high school “dropouts.”

In sum, men whose social position is lower than average kill more often than those with higher incomes and more prestige than the poor and the poorly educated.

Since suicide is also a form of murder, it turned out that suicide is more common among the wealthy and the well educated than the poor and those with little education.

In every dichotomy except gender, suicide was more common among those who had benefitted from the American culture while those men who regarded themselves as losers committed more homicide.

Although American women earn less than men and are less likely to hold leading positions in the workforce than men, the female homicide rate is lower than that of men. Therefore we need to compare women’s violence rates will that of all women, and find that once more those who are less educated and are employed in poorly paid positions than those with higher education are more violent than the educated in leadership positions.

All of this demonstrates that social position and particularly poverty are positively related to homicide in this country. Comparisons to other countries are largely spurious, because England, France, Italy, or Germany do not participate in the American culture. Europeans are far less likely to expect economic success and increases in the level of their rank in the scheme of social stratification than is true here.  

 South American homicide rates, which are much higher than American homicide rates, are determined by abject poverty and a lack of opportunity to rise economically except by means of violence associated with the drug culture.

We therefore can make these observations: that because we are told from early youth on that hard work and ingenuity will pay off in economic success and its associated prestige, large numbers of Americans are disappointed to discover that they cannot achieve such goals. Many of the poor do not have the resources to attain a higher education or to become a plumber. Not only racial discrimination, but a lack of understanding the need for self-control and determination prevents many poor people from upward mobility. The subsequent disappointment can have several outcomes. One of these accommodations to feeling that one has lost all chances of becoming a success is to enter politics. Politicians need not be educated. Politicians need only to know “how to influence people.” All kinds of ignorant Americans have been elected to all kinds of offices, even the presidency. Elected officials need not work but live at the expense of the taxpayer. This makes elected office an alternative status system. We also have innumerable organizations, including religious congregations, whose function is to reward status seekers with offices such as president, board member, committee chair, treasurer, etc. These voluntary organizations allow their officials to feel important in competition with  the Rockefellers and the Ellisons.

I may be only a routine account clerk or factory floor sweeper, but I am the president of the Knights of Columbus, the B’nai B’rith, the Episcopal Brotherhood, or the bowling club. At

least I am somebody. All these oligarchies help support the self-respect of the innumerable “average citizen,” as Michaelis noted in his great essay “Das eiserne Gesetz der Oligarchie.” (The iron law of rule of the few).

There are, however, a good number of Americans who view themselves losers in all this competition. Whatever the reason, those who feel that they are unimportant, unsuccessful, low earners, not good looking, or incompetent compare themselves unfavorably to all those who seem to have it all. The media support the view that “anyone can become president,” so that all who are less than the expectations promoted by movies and other media become resentful of their lowly status. One way to deal with these painful feelings of low self-esteem is to use drugs. From alcohol to heroin, drug addicts overcome the need to rise in the social pyramid. The drugs cover up all the defeats, all the missed opportunities, and all the wrong decisions such as dropping out of school.

Finally, there are those who become most angry and hostile at seeing the success of others, while considering themselves unfavorably compared. For this they blame others, usually called “them.” “They should give me a good job; they are all crooks,” are common beliefs among the unsuccessful.  This sense of being less than others may be called “relative deprivation.” Even some who are not objectively deprived can feel relatively deprived because they earn $100,000 a year, as their friends and relatives earn twice as much.

Yet, those who are always on the bottom of the social ladder, who must take orders from a boss, who are last hired and first fired, who work jobs anyone can do, such as unskilled labor, include some who are very angry at themselves and no longer value their own lives. People who feel that life is not worth living and who blame others for their perceived failures are candidates for homicide and suicide. Such people do not care for their own lives or that of others. They can kill without regret and are so disgusted and defeated by all their experiences that in their rage at their ugly fate they kill, particularly people they know. School shootings are mostly caused by students who are ridiculed, rejected, and excluded by the popular boys and girls who won’t even let the outsiders sit at their lunch table. With no one to help them and to reassure them, these adolescents may be the next school shooter, as we can see almost every day on television. This is particularly so because young people have little life experience and are most likely to believe that things will never get better for them.

Wherever there is great emphasis on success, there must be some who see themselves as losers. To them, the gun is an equalizer with horrible results.

Shalom u’vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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