True Crime, False Perceptions

Andrrew Rose, Scarlet Staff

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It does not require an inordinately observant person to notice that the United States is awash in crime. Crime is everywhere — it’s in local newscasts, TV docudramas, the tabloid stands at the supermarket, internet clickbait, and the President’s speeches. Chances are, it has even infested an entire shelf of poorly-written books in your local bookstore (if you still have a local bookstore).

The signs of our national crime wave are most evident on daytime TV; the homicide rate on some channels is truly appalling. Murder is by far the most common (the perpetrator is usually a jealous wife, troubled teenager from a privileged background, or depraved serial killer). In short, crime is ubiquitous, affecting every facet of our collective experience.

It truly is everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except our streets, homes, and spaces for public recreation. In fact, violent crime has declined by 74 percent since 1993, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The FBI pegs the drop at a more modest 48 percent. Either way, it is indisputable that Americans face a lower risk of being a victim of a violent crime than they have at any point in over fifty years. And yet, the American people are convinced otherwise.

Polls conducted by Pew Research reveal that an overwhelming majority of American adults report that they believe crime rates to be rising. This has consistently been the case over a 17 year period, even as crime rates have fallen.

This is more than just another example of the general public being poorly-informed; the fiction that the world is becoming a more dangerous place has real life consequences for real people. Indeed, if parents believe that danger lurks around every corner, they are less likely to let their child play outdoors; if the elderly believe that the outside world poses an exigent threat to their well-being, they are more likely to remain housebound; if middle-class shoppers believe that certain urban areas are dangerous, they are more likely to steer clear of said area, and thereby deprive it of much needed economic activity.

Worst of all, the widespread perception that crime is an increasing threat has made the public vulnerable to law and order-themed demagoguery. It’s not hard to see how wall-to-wall coverage of violent crime has contributed to all of this.

The damage done by the True Crime industry and its media enablers is not insubstantial, but its problems do not end with the baleful effects it has had on society. Indeed, the existence of a genre of entertainment devoted to recounting, and sometimes depicting, acts of lethal violence in fulsome detail is troubling in itself. The victims of these crimes were actual human beings, replete with loves, hates, and passions. To use their last moments as fodder for popular entertainment is morally questionable at best.

Moreover, the attention paid to people who commit acts of murder is deeply unsettling. The more heinous the crime, the more attention paid. There is something wrong with the fact that virtually everyone can name a serial killer, a school shooter, or some other murderer whose only distinguishing feature was a willingness to commit brutal acts of violence against innocent people. The suffering of real people should not be the stuff of entertainment.