Why Are Killing Rampages Increasing? A Guest Post


Peter Turchin is a professor of ecology and mathematics at the University of Connecticut and author of War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations. Much of his work concerns a new field known as cliodynamics, which attempts to discover general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of historical societies. He has agreed to be a guest blogger this week; this is his first of two posts.

Why Are Killing Rampages Increasing?

By Peter Turchin

A Guest Post

So far in 2008, The New York Times reported at least six shooting rampages. Just two weeks ago a man shot or stabbed 10 people in northwest Washington, six of whom died. After his arrest, he told the police that God told him what to do and told him to “kill evil.”

Are these episodes of senseless mass murder increasing? A systematic search of The New York Times from 1946 to the present suggests that the increase is real and very dramatic:

MassacreNumber per year, plotted by decade.

Over the last half-century the incidence of massacres — shooting rampages, killing sprees, etc. — increased roughly 10-fold. These numbers exclude crime-related (along the lines of Reservoir Dogs) and family-related (“Man Shoots Wife, Kids, Self”) multiple murders.

Why is this happening? Note that I am not concerned here with why killing rampages occur, but why they are on an increase.

The rise in massacres began during the 1960’s and shows no signs of abating. It’s a long-term trend, and I think it is telling us something about fundamental ways in which our society is changing.

I am interested in this trend because my research, in general, focuses on investigating long-term dynamics of historical societies (I call this cliodynamics, Clio being the muse of history). One empirical result from this program is that societies tend to experience recurrent waves of violence and political instability; these waves are themselves the results of long-term social and economic trends (more on this in my book War and Peace and War). In other words, when we want to explain trends evolving on a slow time scale, we look to mechanisms operating on the same scale.

A study by The New York Times in 2000 found that the majority of massacres happen in two situations: at the workplace (about one-third of the total) and at school (one-fifth). Here’s my hypothesis for the increase of work-related rampages (I will deal with school rampages in my next blog):

We know that during the 1970’s something changed in the American economy, and in a very fundamental way. Between 1930 and late 1970’s, real wages grew essentially monotonically (overall, they grew by a factor of 3.5). Since then the wage stagnated (white-collar workers) or even declined (blue-collar workers). These are official statistics (Bureau of Labor Statistics); the actual situation must be worse, because the real rate of inflation is probably underestimated by creative folk at government statistical agencies.

In any case, the costs of big items that define the middle-class way of life — houses, college education, medical insurance — have increased faster than the official inflation rate.

The implications are obvious, and it is surprising that they are rarely brought up in the context of massacres. As their economic prospects deteriorate, many breadwinners find themselves under unendurable pressure to maintain the socially expected level of consumption. Under these conditions, people — whose psychological problems would be borderline in the gentler economic climate of the 1950’s — today “go postal.” So the harsher the economic conditions, the greater the numbers of those whose latent psychological problems develop into full-blown psychosis.

The New York Times from 2000 provides some indirect support for this hypothesis: 57 percent of rampage killers in their database were unemployed when they went on rampage. Remember the 1993 movie Falling Down? The resemblance between the fictional character, brilliantly played by Michael Douglas, and real rampage killers, described in the press reports that I read, is uncanny.

To close, I submit that there is a plausible connection between worsening economic conditions (for most Americans, except the rich) and an increase in workplace rampages. Substantial and growing proportions of massacres, however, occur at schools and universities. I will address this issue in my next blog.

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  1. Willy says:

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to use a statistic like “Rampages per Capita” instead of total rampages?

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    • d says:

      It’s a suspect chart to begin with. How can you have anything other than whole numbers on that chart? You can’t have 7/10s of a massacre.

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  2. Dan Q. Public says:

    I got through the first two paragraphs before the obvious question popped up: are killings on the increase, or are killings /as reported by the New York Times/ on the increase? In 1948, say, was it quite a bit more likely that a three-victim killing in, say, Ely, Nevada was not reported by the NYT? If the whole premise is based on a chart that says, ‘well, there was maybe one killing a year in the late Forties, and not quite seven in the new century,’ is it entirely conceivable and/or likely that the NYT could have missed as small a thing as six crimes a year in the hinterlands of an enormous nation like the US? And, more obviously, isn’t the reporting of one newspaper an awfully shaky foundation for such a wide-reaching thesis?

    Until those questions are answered, everything after the second paragraph is irrelevant.

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  3. Smoke says:

    The idea of cycles underlying history (historizism) is not exactly new. I am particularly a great admirer of the works of Oswald Spengler (“Der Untergang des Abendlands”), who predicted cultures that last about 1000 years, with 500 years as culture and 500 as empires. Even if this way of thinking is somewhat wrong in its conclusions (and therefore lost in its scholarly importance) it has an enormous poetic quality, and I am greatful to see it being kept alive.

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  4. Dan says:

    “A systematic search of The New York Times from 1946 to the present”

    Aren’t you really measuring the increase in the reporting of killing rampages by the NYTimes, as opposed to inreases in actual killing rampages?

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  5. Paul says:

    Any data? Or just “Here’s my hypothesis, in conclusion, my hypothesis” ?

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  6. Doug B says:

    Reminds me of the suicides in Freakonomics, the book. A self-perpetuating activity. As more rampages occur, this triggers even more people to go on rampages.

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  7. Martin says:

    A few things to consider for the purpose of academic thoroughness:

    1.) Some of these people may have become unemployed AFTER they decided to carry out the attack. For example, the Virginia Tech shooter spent months preparing for his rampage. It’s not out of the question that some workers may quit their jobs to prepare for theirs.

    2.) In some ways, CPI underestimates the rate of inflation. For example, 30 years ago, many people would have paid a fortune for all the information that is available free on YouTube, from videos of Rock Bands to How-To Instructions.

    Again, I’m not saying your wrong. Just something to consider.

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  8. David says:

    So, your grand unifying theory is that people under a lot of stress may become violently mentally unstable and that not having enough money is stressful?

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