Canada is showing up in U.S. news media reports more than usual these days, and the stories suggest that a crime wave is underway. How can this be happening in sleepy, quiet Canada?
First it was the lurid reports of feet and limbs being mailed to political party offices in Ottawa. Police traced them to a sender in Montreal, indentified as Luka Rocco Magnotta, now arrested in Berlin. Magnotta is a photogenic ex-model and sometime adult film star whose biography is perfect for media sensationalism.
Then we heard about a food court shooting at the Eaton Centre mall in Toronto that wounded six and resulted in one death.
Is this a trend? Is Canada no longer the safe place that many Americans perceive it to be?
There are two issues here: the crime rate, and the perception of the crime rate. Crime rates, as captured in statistics, tell us that the level of crime in the United States and Canada is consistent over time. Using the murder rate as a leading indicator of crime -- certainly the crime rate that most worries people -- it is notable that Canada's homicide rate has remained stable, about 600 per year, since 2006 even as Canada's population has grown.
With 10 times the population, the United States has far more than 10 times the murders each year. The average murder rate for the nation as a whole is roughly 150,000 murders per year. But that rate, too, has been relatively stable over the past decade.
Thanks to the 24/7/365 media cycle, our constant access to breaking news, and the old journalist's adage, "if it bleeds, it leads," we have a growing perception of crime -- especially sensational crime -- taking place all around us. Gallup surveyed Canadians, Americans, and Britons earlier this year and noted that in all three places, a plurality of respondents believed that the crime rate was rising.
Growing up in Detroit, I learned that perception is not the same as reality when it comes to crime. My friends around the country, and even people I meet today who learn that I grew up in the Motor City, think of Detroit as Baghdad without the palm trees and wonder how I survived. The city, which is frequently dubbed the murder capital of the United States, is not a shooting gallery.
Like fictional Cabot Cove, Maine where Angela Lansbury solved crimes every week on Murder, She Wrote in what would have to be a crime spree of historic proportions for such a small town, when we are watching crime and not participating in it as victims, we never think through the statistics. We just get caught up in the drama.
The point is not to minimize crime: it happens, and when it happens to you or someone you know, it is tragic and all too real. But for those of us who are only half paying attention, it is easy to get an exaggerated perception of reality when it comes to crime. Canada hasn't gone crazy and there isn't a crime spree underway. The Internet has just brought Canada's crime news to U.S. attention in compelling fashion.
Add that to the giant empty void of knowledge that most Americans have when it comes to Canada, and a few scary crime stories quickly become an epic spree of mayhem.