Review Essay

The Real Killer

Fighting the Scourge of Everyday Violence

In This Review

A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security
A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security
By Rachel Kleinfeld
Pantheon, 2018, 496 pp. Purchase

These are dangerous times: war in Syria and Yemen, bloody repression in Venezuela, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Yet by some measures, the world is safer than ever before. The rate of violent death has been falling, albeit unevenly, for decades, even centuries. Fewer people are killed on the battlefield, on the streets, and in homes. Led by the psychologist Steven Pinker, who has collected reams of evidence demonstrating that humanity has slowly but surely grown more peaceable, a new group of thinkers is urging policymakers and the public to consider not just what the world is doing wrong in terms of violence but also what it is doing right.

Rachel Kleinfeld is one such thinker, and her new book, A Savage Order, is to some extent an extension of Pinker’s work. Kleinfeld sets out to “study success” by examining regions where murderous violence has fallen. She also draws on her own research and experience promoting security and human rights to extract lessons for policymakers looking to pacify violent societies. Kleinfeld claims to have developed a “blueprint for action,” but that is an overstatement: her conclusions are too general to serve as a concrete guide for policymaking. Yet she does offer valuable insights into why some governments allow violence to fester and what societies can do to end it. As Kleinfeld shows, some countries have managed to cut crime and save lives. Others can and should learn from them.


Kleinfeld begins with an important observation: most violence takes place in everyday situations, not on the battlefield. Each year, individual attackers, organized criminal groups, and state security services kill four times as many people as do all the current wars put together. Leaders should continue working to prevent war, but most progress in promoting peace will depend on controlling the more mundane forms of brutality.

That progress has to start in the most violent countries, such as Brazil, which suffers from an annual national homicide rate (over 30 per 100,000 citizens) that is 15 times

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