Analysis: America the crime-free, Part 3

By IAIN MURRAY  |  March 20, 2003 at 4:10 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- This is the third part of a three-part look at crime rates in the United States.

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America's reputation as an international hotbed of crime is misplaced when compared with similar countries such as Britain, France or Australia. But the crime-free nature of American society becomes even more apparent when we consider what we know about crime in Second- or Third-world countries.

In Africa and Latin America crime is much more prevalent than in the United States, and other forms of crime, most notably corruption and endemic sexual assault, pose serious problems for the inhabitants of Africa, Latin America and Asia that they don't in the United States.

Burglary is an excellent example. In the 1996 sweep of the International Criminal Victimization Survey, 5.6 percent of the American population reported having been the victim of a burglary or attempted burglary during the previous year. In Bolivia, the equivalent figure was 15.2 percent. In Costa Rica, it was 15.8 percent. Similar figures prevail throughout Latin America.

In Africa, the situation is far worse: the figure was about 20 percent in Zimbabwe (before that country's recent troubles), 23 percent in Uganda and more than 30 percent in Tanzania. Even the Arab countries of Africa, where traditional law codes are well established, report more burglaries than the United States: 7 percent of Egyptian respondents were the victims of actual or attempted burglary, as were almost 11 percent of Tunisians.

In Asia, the situation is much better, with Indonesia reporting similar levels of burglary to the United States, but India, China and the Philippines reporting lower levels (only 2.5 percent in China).

Similar results obtain in the case of contact crimes, although Latin America reports higher levels than most African countries for robberies and actual assaults. While only just over 1 percent of Americans reported being the victim of robbery, the level in African nations like Zimbabwe and Uganda was about 4 percent.

In Latin America, about 6 percent of respondents in Costa Rica, Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay reported robberies, while the figure was more than 10 percent in Brazil and Colombia.

Again, the position is better in Asia, with India, Indonesia and China reporting robbery levels about the same as the United States and the Philippines reporting levels twice as high.

It is in the area of sexual crimes, however, that the greatest difference shows between America and the developing world. In America, 2.5 percent of women reported being victims of sexual assault or harassment. This number is almost certainly an underestimate, given the stigma attached to sexual victimization, but that caveat goes all the more for reports in the developing world, where virginity and/or chastity are more prized in women.

It's therefore troubling to see reports of sexual victimization at almost double the American number in Asia and Africa and far greater in Latin America. In China, 6 percent of women reported sexual victimization, as did about the same number in Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Almost 10 percent made such reports in Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia (the figures were lower in Bolivia and Paraguay, but this might be due to the stigma problem).

Interestingly, the highest rate of sexual victimization recorded in the survey was in Islamic Egypt, almost 11 percent.

There is also a difference in the seriousness of sex crimes between America and developing nations. In America, 38 percent of such crimes are actual sexual assault (rape, attempted rape or indecent assault) rather than harassment or offensive behavior.

In Asia, however, 42 percent are more serious. This figure rises to 50 percent in Africa and almost 70 percent in Latin America (where 43 percent of sex crimes are indecent assaults).

Clearly, serious sexual victimization of women is much more prevalent in the developing world than in the United States.

While the rate of sex crime in America is nothing to be proud of, the United States is a much safer place for women than most of the rest of the world.

Finally, we should not forget that corruption is an everyday occurrence in most of the world. Bribery of public officials, for instance, is common, with one quarter of the population encountering it in the previous year in countries as diverse as Indonesia, India, Egypt, Uganda, Argentina and Bolivia. No Latin American country reported a bribery rate lower than 11 percent (Costa Rica).

The scale of corruption in these countries is almost inconceivable for an American used to integrity, if not efficiency, from public officials.

America, then, is far from the lawless country popularized by crime shows and hysterical news reports. Despite its anomalous homicide rate, it suffers violent and property crime less than its peers and far less than most developing nations. Women are far safer in the United States from sexual victimization than they are in most of the world, and it has almost extinguished the debilitating crime of corruption.

If anything, Americans should be proud of how crime-free their nation is.

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Iain Murray, a writer based in Alexandria, Va., is a Visiting Fellow of the British think-tank Civitas, The Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

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