By many measures, 2016 qualified as a horrible year:
Beloved celebrities dropped dead in droves.
Guns still kill too many Americans. Police shootings of unarmed black men sparked more protests, plus some retaliatory attacks on cops.
Islamic terrorists continued to menace the West, most dramatically in Orlando and Nice.
A terrible civil war raged on in Syria, destabilizing the region and sending a steady flood of refugees into Europe.
The real meaning of each of these trends emerges fully when placed in proper historical and global context.
The Unsurprising “Curse of 2016”
Most of the celebrities who died last year were old.
Get used to it. History affirms that the elderly expire pretty reliably somewhere around average life expectancy for their demographic cohort.
In coming years, as more Baby Boomers trudge into their seventies, the Grim Reaper will sadly continue to cull their contemporary pop culture icons.
The Real Story on Crime, Cops & Guns
Violent crime has fallen steadily since the early ’90s, but Americans remain less safe than residents of more enlightened countries with stronger social safety nets and more sensible firearm laws.
Despite media claims of a war on cops, the fact is that American law enforcement officers have never been safer.
Unfortunately, we lack good statistics on police shootings of unarmed people. However, preliminary data suggest dramatic racial disparities.
Despite overall declines in violent crime, our overarmed country still annually generates more than 10,000 gun murders, more than 20,000 suicides by firearm, plus a few thousand accidental shooting deaths.
2016 will go down as just another year Americans collectively chose to do nothing about these problems.
The Rising Scourge of Terrorism… Elsewhere
We are right to mourn when terrorists target Orlando, Nice, Berlin, and other Western cities. Continued vigilance and appropriate counterattacks remain justified.
However, as the following graph vividly demonstrates, terrorists mostly kill people on other continents. Only once — on 9/11 — did Western deaths register on a global scale.
American foreign policy appears to have influenced the three most dramatic shifts in terror’s trajectory: 1) a steady rise after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 2) a slight fall following the 2007 surge, and 3) a dramatic spike since effective withdrawal in 2011.
Syria… and Other Wars You Mostly Ignore
Syria’s suffering also stems largely from failures of US foreign policy, but this country seems determined to avoid pulling its weight either in the refugee crisis or the fight against the Islamic State.
By studiously avoiding international news, most Americans remain oblivious to the other civil conflicts roiling much of the rest of the world.
Compared to past centuries, however, the world has never been more peaceful. Never before in the history of civilization have we seen so few battlefield deaths, civilian casualties and mass killings.
Americans and Britons led the building of this unprecedented peace through 75 years of effective international cooperation: NATO and similar alliances, regional cooperation agreements, free trade pacts, and the United Nations.
Sadly, the US and the UK just elected leaders who question those very institutions and policies.
America’s Puzzling Self-Inflicted Wound
However, if we work together for the next four years to fight fascism, defend our freedoms, stand for truth and smash the plutocracy, then 2016 will emerge merely as a weird wrong turn — a permanent embarrassment, but, God willing, not the end of the American experiment.