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  • Picture your dream vacation.

  • Maybe you're dying to go to Rio for Carnival.

  • Or you really just want to hang out on a Mexican beach.

  • Or maybe you're going to join me in New Orleans for Jazz Fest.

  • Now, I know it's less pleasant,

  • but picture, for a moment,

  • one of the most violent places on earth.

  • Did anyone think of the same place?

  • Brazil is the most violent country in the world today.

  • More people have been dying there over the last three years

  • than in Syria.

  • And in Mexico, more people have died over the last 15 years

  • than in Iraq or Afghanistan.

  • In New Orleans, more people per capita are dying

  • than in war-torn Somalia.

  • The fact is, war only results

  • in about 18 percent of violent deaths worldwide.

  • Today, you are more likely to die violently

  • if you live in a middle-income democracy

  • with high levels of income inequality

  • and serious political polarization.

  • The United States has four of the 50 most violent cities on earth.

  • Now, this is a fundamental alteration in the nature of violence, historically.

  • But it's also an opportunity.

  • Because while few people can do much to end war,

  • violence in our democracies is our problem.

  • And while regular voters are a big part of that problem,

  • we're also key to the solution.

  • Now, I work at a think tank,

  • the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,

  • where I advise governments on what to do about violence,

  • but the dirty secret is,

  • most policymakers haven't figured out these changes to violence today.

  • They still believe that the worst violence happens in countries at war

  • or places that are too poor, too weak,

  • to fight violence and control crime.

  • And that had been my assumption too.

  • But if you look at a map of the most violent places on earth,

  • you see something strange.

  • Some of them are at war,

  • and a few are truly failed states.

  • The violence in these places is horrific,

  • but they happen to have small populations,

  • so it actually affects few people.

  • Then there's South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela.

  • These places are not poor.

  • Maybe they're weak.

  • My research assistant and I mapped places

  • based on how well they delivered on World Bank projects

  • and whether they could get public services to their people,

  • and if you did well on both of those,

  • if you could get sanitation and electricity to your people

  • and deliver vaccines,

  • you were in the upper right-hand quadrant.

  • And then we overlaid that

  • with a map of places where journalists were being murdered.

  • Some were happening in weak states,

  • but an awful lot of journalists were being killed

  • in places plenty capable of protecting them.

  • I traveled to every settled continent on earth,

  • comparing places that had faced massive violence and recovered

  • and those that hadn't,

  • and I kept seeing the same pattern.

  • I came to call it "privilege violence,"

  • because it happened in highly unequal democracies,

  • where a small group of people

  • wanted to hold on to inordinate power and privilege.

  • And if they didn't think they could get those policies past the voters,

  • sometimes they would turn to violent groups for help.

  • Drug cartels would finance their campaigns.

  • Organized criminals would help them get out the vote.

  • Gangs would suppress the vote.

  • And in exchange, they'd be given free reign,

  • and violence would grow.

  • Take Venezuela.

  • It's the most violent country in the world today,

  • if you look at deaths per capita.

  • Twenty years ago, the current regime gained power in legitimate elections,

  • but they didn't want to risk losing it,

  • and so they turned to gangs, called "colectivos," for help.

  • The gangs were told to get out the vote for the government

  • and force people to vote for the regime in some neighborhoods

  • and keep opposition voters away from the polls in others,

  • and, in exchange, they'd be given control.

  • But if criminals have control,

  • then police and courts can't do their jobs.

  • So the second stage in privilege violence

  • is that courts and police are weakened,

  • and politicians politicize budgets,

  • hiring, firing,

  • so that they and the violent groups that they collude with stay out of jail.

  • Now, pretty soon, good cops leave,

  • and many that remain become brutal.

  • They start off, usually, with rough justice.

  • They kill a drug dealer that they think would be let off by the corrupt courts.

  • But over time, the worst of them realize that there will be no repercussions

  • from the politicians they're in bed with,

  • and they go into business for themselves.

  • In Venezuela, nearly one in three murders is by the security services.

  • Now, the poor are hit hardest by violence all over the world,

  • but they're hardly going to turn to such predatory cops for help.

  • So they tend to form vigilante groups.

  • But arm a bunch of 18-year-old boys,

  • and pretty soon, they devolve into gangs over time.

  • Other gangs come in, mafias come in,

  • and they offer to protect people from the other criminals

  • and from the police.

  • Unlike the state,

  • the criminals often try to buy legitimacy.

  • They give charity. They solve disputes.

  • Sometimes, they even build subsidized housing.

  • The last stage of privilege violence happens when regular people

  • start committing a significant portion of the murder.

  • Bar fights and neighborhood arguments turn deadly

  • when violence has become normal

  • and repercussions have evaporated.

  • To outsiders, the culture looks depraved,

  • as if something is deeply wrong with those people.

  • But any country can become this violent

  • when the government is, by turns, absent and predatory.

  • Actually, that's not quite true --

  • it takes one more step for this level of violence to reign.

  • It takes mainstream society

  • to ignore the problem.

  • You'd think that would be impossible,

  • that violence at this level would be unbearable,

  • but it's actually quite bearable to people like you and me.

  • That's because, in every society in the world,

  • even the most violent,

  • violence is highly concentrated.

  • It happens to people on the wrong side of town,

  • people who are poor, often darker,

  • often from groups that are marginalized,

  • groups that mainstream society can separate ourselves from.

  • Violence is so concentrated

  • that we're shocked when the pattern deviates.

  • In Washington, DC, in 2001,

  • a young white college-educated intern

  • went missing after a hike in Northwest DC,

  • and her case was in the papers nearly every day.

  • On the other side of town,

  • a black man had been killed every other day that year.

  • Most of those cases never made the papers even once.

  • Middle class society buys their way out of violence.

  • We live in better neighborhoods.

  • Some people buy private security.

  • And we also tell ourselves a story.

  • We tell ourselves that most of the people who are killed

  • are probably involved in crime themselves.

  • By believing that somehow some people deserve to be murdered,

  • otherwise good people allow ourselves to live

  • in places where life chances are so deeply skewed.

  • We allow ourselves.

  • Because, after all, what else can you do?

  • Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

  • Because violence today is not largely the result of war

  • but is because of rotten politics in our democracies,

  • regular voters are the greatest force for change.

  • Consider the transformation of Bogotá.

  • In 1994, Colombia's incoming president

  • was caught taking millions of dollars in campaign contributions

  • from the Cali drug cartel,

  • and the capital was overrun with gangs and paramilitary groups.

  • But fed-up voters overcame really rabid partisanship,

  • and they delivered nearly two-thirds of the vote

  • to an independent candidate,

  • enough to really overcome business as usual.

  • On Mayor Mockus's first day in office,

  • the police barely bothered to even brief him on homicide,

  • and when he asked why, they just shrugged and said,

  • "It's just criminals killing criminals."

  • The corrupt city council

  • wanted to give police even more impunity for brutality.

  • It's a really common tactic that's used worldwide

  • when politicians want to posture as tough on crime

  • but don't actually want to change the status quo.

  • And research shows it backfires all over the world.

  • If you throw a lot of low-level offenders into jails,

  • usually already overcrowded jails,

  • they learn from each other and they harden.

  • They start to control the prisons, and from there, the streets.

  • Instead, Mockus insisted that police begin investigating every death.

  • He fought the right-wing city council,

  • and he abandoned SWAT-style police tactics.

  • And he fought the left-wing unions

  • and fired thousands of predatory cops.

  • Honest police were finally free to do their jobs.

  • Mockus then challenged citizens.

  • He asked the middle class to stop opting out of their city,

  • to follow traffic laws

  • and otherwise behave as if they shared the same community of fate.

  • He asked the poor to uphold social norms against violence,

  • often at immense personal risk.

  • And he asked the wealthy to give 10 percent more in taxes, voluntarily.

  • Sixty-three thousand people did.

  • And at the end of the decade that spanned Mayor Mockus's two terms in office,

  • homicide in Bogotá was down 70 percent.

  • Audience: Whoo!

  • (Applause)

  • People in places with the most violence,

  • whether it's Colombia or the United States,

  • can make the biggest difference.

  • The most important thing we can do is abandon the notion

  • that some lives are just worth less than others,

  • that someone deserves to be raped or murdered,

  • because after all, they did something,

  • they stole or they did something to land themselves in prison

  • where that kind of thing happens.

  • This devaluing of human life,

  • a devaluing we barely admit even to ourselves,

  • is what allows the whole downward spiral to begin.

  • It's what allows a bullet shot in a gang war in Rio

  • to lodge in the head of a two-year-old girl

  • climbing on a jungle gym nearby.

  • And it's what allows a SWAT team hunting for a meth dealer in Georgia

  • to throw a flash bang grenade into the crib of a little boy,

  • exploding near his face and maiming him for life.

  • The fact is, most violence everywhere

  • happens to people on the wrong side of town

  • at the wrong time,

  • and some of those people are from communities

  • that we consider quite different.

  • Some of them are people who have done horrible things.

  • But reducing violence begins with privileging every human life,

  • both because it's right

  • and because only by prizing each life as worthy of at least due process,

  • can we create societies in which the lives of innocents are safe.

  • Second, recognize that today,

  • inequality within our countries

  • is a vastly greater cause of violence than war between countries.

  • Now, inequality leads to violence for a whole host of reasons,

  • but one of them is that it lets us separate ourselves

  • from what's happening on the other side of town.

  • Those of us who are middle-class or wealthy,

  • who are benefiting from these systems,

  • have to change them at immense cost to ourselves.

  • We have to pay enough taxes

  • and then demand that our governments put good teachers in other kids' schools

  • and well-trained police to protect other peoples' neighborhoods.

  • But, of course, that's not going to do any good

  • if the government is stealing the money or fueling the violence,

  • and so we also need better politicians with better incentives.

  • The fact is, we actually know a lot about what it takes to reduce violence.

  • It's policies like putting more cops

  • in the few places where most violence occurs.

  • But they don't fit easily into the boxes of the Left or the Right,

  • and so you need really honest politicians

  • who are willing to buck knee-jerk partisanship

  • and implement solutions.

  • And if we want good politicians to run,

  • we need to start respecting politicians.

  • There's also a lot we can do to fight privilege violence in other countries.

  • The most violent regimes tend to be fueled by drugs,