Kabul Afghanistan
Blackhawk helicopter over Kabul, 2009


The other day Gawker passed along a "statistic" that gets lots of attention every time it's mentioned (which has been at least three times, in The Daily, Huffington Post, and then Gawker, the last of which has since corrected the post): "The Windy City's murder rate is worse than the murder rate in Kabul, a literal war zone." I was going to write about it, but the excellent Adam Serwer beat me to it, suggesting that "If that sounds too nuts to be true, that's because it is."

Actually, the whole stat was mangled from the beginning: the Daily writer said that more people were being killed in Chicago than American troops were getting killed in Afghanistan (actually true), which was incorrectly summed up by the headline writer, which was then uncritically passed on by the Huffington Post and Gawker. Serwer runs the numbers:

You see what the problem is here, right? Chicago is a city of nearly three million people, while there are about 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan (which is not the same as Kabul). The murder rate (not the total number of deaths) in Chicago based on those numbers is 8.42 per 100,000 residents. Given that US troops in Afghanistan are involved in an international armed conflict, it's odd to refer to the all the deaths of US servicemembers as "murders," but if you were to call this the "murder rate" it would be 160 per 100,000 troops. In other words, being a US servicemember in Afghanistan is about nineteen times as deadly as being a resident of Chicago.

The initial point got ground into meaninglessness by the Internet, but what about civilian deaths in Kabul? This is the most recent data I could find, from the UN:

In the last half of 2011, although Kandahar and Helmand remained the provinces with the highest number of civilian deaths with 290 civilians killed; this number is a 39 percent decrease compared to the same period in 2010.


This rise [in violence due to a geographical shift in the conflict] was prominent in Kabul province, where civilian deaths increased from 23 in the last half of 2010 to 71 in 2011. 67 of the 71 civilian deaths in Kabul during this period occurred as a result of six suicide attacks.

Yes, Kabul is in a war zone, but all war zones are not alike. Kandahar and Helmand provinces, populations just above 900,000 and 1,400,000 respectively, have higher murder rates, so to speak, than Chicago (they're also more dangerous for troops).

Kabul province, population about 3.5 million, has a lower rate—it has more people and considerably fewer civilian deaths (based on the last half of 2011), a slightly better proxy for murder rates. So maybe the fake statistic was actually right.

(Update: assuming 142 civilan deaths for 3.5 million people over a year in Kabul province, that makes Kabul less deadly than Los Angeles, the comparative success the Gawker writer used in contrast to Chicago.)

But there's still an apples-and-oranges comparison at work, and Serwer makes a good point about the pitfalls of it:

The war zone metaphor foments the very complacency Jefferson is trying to shake people out of: After all, people die all the time in wars. Part of what gave the Colorado movie theater shooting its emotional impact is that it occurred outside the places many of us have cordoned off as "war zones" in our heads. We implicitly accept triple-digit casualties in places like Chicago as an unalterable fact of urban life, when of course they aren't.


Certainly people outside Chicago should know about it, and Jefferson and Knowles were doing an admirable thing by bringing it to people's attention, but I'm not really convinced that Chicago's murder rate would be better dealt with if everyone Felt Really Bad About It the way we Feel Really Bad about mass shootings, since the emotional signifying rarely leads to the kind of coherent public policy response that might actually change things for the better.

Pointing towards Chicago, and Chicago specifically, as the exemplar of the crisis of urban violence, is also problematic because there are places that are worse, and arguably need more immediate help of the sort that national concern might bring: East St. Louis, Illinois, if you want to again mix domestic and foreign policy, is as close to a "failed state" as anywhere in America that I can think of. (In fact, Pat Quinn was there today trying to bring increased oversight to the city's police force.)

It's a small city of 27,000, about half what it was in 1980. Half the under-18 population is below the poverty line. 40 percent of families are led by a single female parent. The school district is almost broke and is delaying classes because they don't know how many teachers they need. The murder rate in 2010 was 77.8 per capita 100k (down to about 51.8 this year on 14 homicides); it was 16.0 in Chicago. By comparison, the highest murder rate in a Chicago neighborhood this year is 85.3 in Washington Park, the last time I ran the numbers. The aggravated assault rate was 5,095 per capita 100k (510.4 in Chicago).

Chicago, at least, is a wealthy city, even if it's currently broke. East St. Louis is an entire municipality with the same economic and crime problems as, say, Woodlawn. New Orleans has a higher murder rate, as does St. Louis. Chicago has some unique problems by degree, like its entrenched yet splintering gangs, but they're shared by other cities—urban problems, public health problems, not war or Chicago problems.


Photograph: U.S. Army