In January 2022 the New York Times investigated the reasons for the dramatic upswing in the murder rate in the United States in 2020 and 2021. Experts pointed to three reasons. First, the pandemic disrupted every aspect of society over its duration. Social services and school attendance that help keep crime rates down vanished overnight. Second, as a result of racial justice protests and movements to de-fund the police, law officers have been reluctant to actively engage in policing and some citizens consequently took the law into their own hands. And third, the increasing number of available weapons – particularly guns – have exacerbated the problem.
All three theories are deficient. Other countries did not experience a similar spike in murder rates during the pandemic. Moreover, other types of crime actually decreased during the same period. In addition, it is ludicrous to think that the surfeit of murders are acts of vigilantism or that the pandemic allowed for a “morality holiday.” While it is true that in general more guns in circulation means more violence, it still does not explain why the murder rate increased but armed robbery did not.
What experts tend to overlook is the fact that life itself has been cheapened. While there have been occasional declines in the murder rate, the long-term trend shows an ineluctable rise. The murder rate has climbed in the United States since colonial times, exploding from 1970-1990. From 1991 the murder rate declined only to rise again from 2015 and is showing no signs of abating. In parallel to the rise in the murder rate is a steady decline in church attendance and the effective elimination of all moral teaching in public schools. (There was a time that students were not only taught tolerance and good citizenship, students were graded on their performance!) Society has suffered as a result. Without the main institutions of society buttressing the idea that human life is sacred, people have fallen victim to baser instincts.
The Torah explicitly forbids the wanton killing of another human being. “Do not murder” is clear and absolute. It is not a law that admits to exceptions or convenient, self-serving justifications. If only the principle of the sanctity of life could be recovered, how different – and better – would the world become.