Gang killings and 19th century European culture

Food for thought in crime deterrence and capital punishment debate: An article in The Economist on gang killing statistics. Gang violence: Turf wars. Gang killings have less to do with drugs and crime than expected.

Apparently, the presumption that gang killings are strongly linked to drug wars and organized criminal activity has no empirical basis asides from one anomalous case, the one of Newark, where gangs do, in fact, control drug trade. According to data cited by The Economist, and quite surprisingly, young gang members mostly kill one another over exaggerated notions of honor and respect.

This finding brings up an unexpected analogy for those familiar with European history – gang “honor” killings are not unlike the plague of duels that wiped out many of the finest scions of the European nobility and middle class during the 19th century. One most regrettable example is the premature demise of Évariste Galois, the founder of abstract algebra, killed in a thoroughly senseless duel at the age of 20. At least Évariste had notice of his impending doom and he was able to spend the night leading up to the duel writing down many but not all of his groundbreaking mathematical findings. Unfortunately, the night was far too short to allow him to reduce all of his realizations and discoveries to paper.

To play devil’s advocate, one possible answer to the argument that “guns and youth do not mix” is to point to the existence of duels before firearms became easily available. Still, killing somebody in a mêlée or with a ranged weapon requires considerably more effort and skill than simply pointing in your opponent’s general direction at point-blank distance and pulling a trigger. Consequently, prospects of survival of a confrontation in the more chivalrous and sporting age of Scaramouche seemed to be higher. 

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