The FBI maintains an ominous website seemingly devoted to giving Americans the heebie-jeebies. It’s called The Crime Clock, and for the most recent year of published U.S. statistics (2009) it reads like this:
One murder every 34.5 minutes
One forcible rape every 6.0 minutes
One robbery every 1.3 minutes
One aggravated assault every 39.1 seconds
One burglary every 14.3 seconds
One larceny-theft every 5.0 seconds
One motor vehicle theft every 39.7 seconds
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Maybe you feel like looking over your shoulder as the seconds tick by. Tick. Tick. When will it happen to you? When will it happen to the ones you love? Better hunker down. Better do something. Better lock something. Better pass a law.
We like to personalize statistics like these or apply them to the set of friends and family we hold dear. But it’s important to remember that these statistics aren’t personal. They apply to the entire United States. And in the year 2009, there were 307,000,000 people in the United States. That number is left out by the FBI. The real Crime Clock runs with one murder every 34.5 minutes per 307 million people. There’s one aggravated assault every 39.1 seconds per 307 million people.
Does that make the risk of becoming a victim of crime sound different? It should. But a lump of 307 million people is hard for humans to imagine; for the vast majority of their history as a species, humans have lived in immediate groups of 40-50. Until quite recently on an evolutionary scale, we’ve tended to live in communities of maybe a thousand or two. We just can’t stuff the idea of 307 million people in our heads, and organizations that use fear for bigger budgets (like the FBI) or for increased viewership (like the cable news networks) depend on this. They’ll toss isolated crimes all over the news to make us feel under siege, or they’ll leave a big, whopping, 307,000,000 denominator out of their statistics to make us feel like any minute now, something’s going to happen to us.
To fight back, let’s retool those statistics by making them fit our human tendency to personalize everything. Let’s make the statistics personal. We know from the FBI that in 2009, there was one aggravated assault every 39.1 seconds on average per 307,000,000 people. Multiply the 39.1-second figure by 307,000,000. The result: in 2009, there was one aggravated assault every 12,003,700,000 seconds upon the average single person. That’s 1 aggravated assault every 12 billion, 3 million, 7 hundred thousand seconds. There’s no way we can knock into our heads how immense that number really is, but divide that by the 31,536,000 seconds in a year and you get something more comprehensible: a rate of 1 aggravated assault per person every 380.6 years. An average person living 75 years in this country under conditions seen in 2009 would probably never experience aggravated assault. Such an average person’s lifetime risk turns out to be about 1 in 5.
Of course, not all of us are average. Some of us are young, stay out late, and pick fights in bars. Others of us play parcheesi at the library for kicks or live in gated communities or far out of town. But when we bring the FBI’s statistics for 307 million people down to the scale of our individual lives, it becomes clear that for most of us, aggravated assault is something to avoid on the scale of a lifetime (if that), not something to worry about happening this minute. That realization gives us some time to sit back, take a deep breath and think hard about what we’re willing to do and what we’re not willing to do as individuals and as a nation to avoid that sort of risk.