Saturday, November 10, 2007

Violent death---updating the U.S.-Israel comparison

People continue to ask if it's safe to visit Israel. Here is an update comparing deadly violence in Israel and the United States.

In 2006, Israel's ratio of death from all acts of violence---including murder, suicide bombings and the Second Lebanon War---was lower than the U.S. murder rate.

This is in line with earlier years. Despite being depicted in television shows and U.S. government travel warnings as a dangerous place, Israel customarily experiences a lower rate of deadly violence than the United States.

Here are the rates of violent death for both countries in 2006, the most recent year for which 12-month U.S. data are available:

Israel 2006:
5.4 deaths from crime, terror and war per 100,000 inhabitants

United States 2006:
5.7 deaths from murder and non-negligent manslaughter per 100,000 inhabitants

Various U.S. metropolitan areas report above-average deadly violence. Here are a few examples from among many. The numbers represent murders per 100,000 residents:

New York City, 7.3
Miami metro area, 7.6
Los Angeles metro area, 8.4
Houston metro area, 9.6
Atlantic City metro area, 11.1
Los Angeles, inside city limits, 12.4
Miami, inside city limits, 19.6
Atlanta, inside city limits, 22.6
Detroit-Dearborn metro area, 23.0
Philadelphia (AKA the City of Brotherly Love), 27.7
Washington, D.C., inside city limits, 29.1
Cincinnati, inside city limits, 29.9
New Orleans, inside city limits, 37.6
Baltimore, inside city limits, 43.3

The numbers come from data announced by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in its Uniform Crime Reporting Program. This program compiles data from local law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

The FBI reported that 17,034 acts of murder and non-negligent manslaughter took place in the United States in 2006. This was at a rate of 5.7 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.

By contrast, Israel's 188 conventional homicide victims plus 30 people killed by suicide bombings and other acts classified as terrorism represented a rate below 3.1 violent deaths per 100,000 residents. The Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 took the lives of 119 Israeli soldiers and 44 civilians. This added 2.3 points to Israel's violent-death rate, raising it to about 5.4 per 100,000 inhabitants.

As a percentage of population, the deaths of 119 Israeli soldiers in a six-week war were more than six times as great as the entire U.S. military death toll in Iraq for all of 2006. Despite this, Israel's rate of deadly violence including the Lebanon war deaths was not only below the 2006 U.S. murder rate but was less than the lowest yearly homicide rate ever recorded in the United States (5.5 per 100,000 inhabitants).

Ami Isseroff has written about the phenomenon of U.S. residents saying it is dangerous to live in Israel yet telling their own stories of danger in the United States. I recall a briefing for editors arriving for a two-week seminar at Columbia University. The briefer told us to look out the windows at Morningside Park. We were pretty sure he was preparing to say that the place was unsafe at night. What he told us was that we should never enter the park during the day. That was quite a few years ago, and it's reported to be better now.

The FBI has taken to urging us not to rank or compare localities' crime rates without more information.

"Until data users examine all the variables that affect crime in a town, city, county, state, region, or college or university, they can make no meaningful comparisons," the FBI stated.

In this connection, it's worth repeating what I wrote in an earlier report on comparative homicide rates:

"[C]omparisons like this can be misleading. The numbers are general and cannot tell us important facts about the violence they reflect. They do not identify the neighborhoods where most violence takes place, nor do they show which elements of the population are most vulnerable. They do not show the relationship, if any, between the victim and killer. They do not show who is likely to commit violence. They do not tell us how many violent attacks the authorities succeeding in thwarting. They do not measure tension and fear among the living. Nor do they tell us what may happen tomorrow."

Even if comparisons are inexact, they can put some things in proportion. Take the accusations of the anti-Zionist teacher Ilan Pappe. He cites Palestinian deaths at the hands of the Israel army in 2006 in support of his claim that "Israel is employing genocidal policies in the Gaza Strip." Palestinian sources put the 2006 Gaza death toll at 588. The non-governmental groups Amnesty and Btselem announced lower figures. Whichever number is correct, it reflects a death toll no more genocidal than the murder rate in Baltimore, a city whose tourist promotion bureau assures us that it is "a fun and accessible destination for all to enjoy!"

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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