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Updated Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 10:01 PM

To vanquish the bad, first study the good

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

The national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported earlier this year that more people died in 2011 in the United States than ever before.

Sounds horrible. And it is if you knew or cared for any of the more than 2.5 million individuals who died that year.

But, it is equally true that the death rate was at an all-time low, 740.6 per 100,000 people, and it has declined each year for more than a decade. More people are dying because our population is larger. In fact, more people are living to old age.

Context and perspective, aren't just useful for making us feel better when we are confronted with bad news. They are a reason to believe that we can do better. They illuminate solutions to our problems, and if we are smart, they motivate us to act.

I've been reviewing the news from this year and feeling weighted down by much of it. I suspect many people feel that way.

We'll carry some of the pain of this year into the next, especially tragedies like the slaughter in Newtown, Conn., so recent and so egregious.

An event like that piles on top of personal losses and ongoing stresses.

But there is good news to carry into the new year, too.

I saw a list of Bill Gates' favorite books from 2012, and first on the list was a book by the psychologist Steven Pinker, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined."

I've mentioned it before. Pinker combs through centuries of data and concludes humanity is living in the least violent period in our entire history.

If that's hard to believe, Pinker says that at least part of the reason we see our world as excessively violent is that our standards have evolved. That we are shocked by today's levels of violence is good, if it means we will continue to work for even less violence.

We are disturbed by the use of torture, which used to be taken for granted.

World War III at one time seemed a sure bet, but it didn't happen.

For most of human history people (mainly men) felt compelled to take justice into their own hands, but in the modern era, in the developed world especially, that responsibility lies with government. There are still too many exceptions, but over the course of time that's one of the reasons we've moved further and further from constant violence.

When violence happens it is shocking.

A story in The Seattle Times on Friday looked back on homicides in Seattle this year.

The number of killings early in the year had many people worried.

Seattle police held a news conference to calm fears and lay out their plans for addressing the killing. They were going to focus on people known to be violent and on gangs.

The very next day, Ian Stawicki, a man who was not on the Police Department's radar, shot five people at Café Racer in the University District. Four of them died. He killed another woman in downtown Seattle before killing himself in West Seattle.

Perspective fails in moments like that.

By the end of the year, the number of homicides was where it has been for the past decade.

Our strong reaction to the homicides early in the year was not wrong. It would have been a problem only if it led us to despair or to react in unproductive, or even counterproductive ways.

We can reduce deaths further by multiple means, some more obvious than others.

On the CIA's list of countries by life expectancy, we come in at No. 51, far behind Japan, Canada, the European Union countries. Israel, despite the dangers there, is 18th.

Our high level of inequality, including health-care disparities, affects that.

So does the level of violence in America, and the tools that amplify that violence.

The American gun-ownership rate is much higher than the rate in any other country. There are almost as many guns as people, nearly nine guns for each 10 people.

The U.S. has more than 30,000 gun deaths a year, about 19,000 of them suicides, according to the CDC.

We live longer than Americans of a few generations ago, but our gains don't match those of other wealthy nations.

Acknowledging and studying the progress that has been made here and elsewhere can spur us to achieve more.

These are the best of times, and they can be made even better.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.


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