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Opinion: Has COVID-19 really turned us into mean, violent people?

The murder rate leaped up during 2020, people are driving aggressively and airline passengers are acting out. All of this correlates to the start of the pandemic.

A candlelight vigil is help for slain University of Utah student Aaron Lowe.
Members of the University of Utah community remember the life of slain student-athlete Aaron Lowe during a candlelight vigil on Wednesday at University of Utah in Salt Lake City. FBI statistics show the nation’s murder rate has risen dramatically since the start of the pandemic.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

So many questions, so few answers.

First, is society really this fragile?

Has a year and a half of inconveniences due to COVID-19 really summoned the worst angels, or perhaps devils, of our nature?

Second, and more importantly, are these things going to be part of the new normal of our future, like working from home and shopping online?

FBI statistics released this week were alarming, if also contradictory. They showed that the murder rate jumped by almost 30% between 2019 and 2020. That’s not only alarming, it represents “a tsunami of lethal violence,” as Philip Cook, a crime expert at Duke University, told The Atlantic.

It was the largest increase since the agency began tracking numbers in 1960.

And yet, at the same time, overall crime, especially property crimes, were down.

Experts say the drop in property crimes might be explained by how many people were forced to work from home during the year. Burglars don’t like to invade when people are home. But no one seems to know for sure.

In fact, “we don’t really know why” has become a slogan, of sorts, for the ’20s thus far.

It would be nice if someone could figure it out, quickly.

As The New York Times noted, previous murder spikes seemed to be concentrated in major cities. This wave, however, is more widespread.

Utahns have, in recent weeks, seen evidence of that. This is hardly a murder capital, but homicides are trending up here, too.

Early last Sunday, University of Utah football player Aaron Lowe was killed by gunfire at a party in Sugarhouse.

Then on Monday, police in South Jordan responded to a bizarre incident involving a woman who was shot by another motorist while driving down 104th South, and who then crashed into another car. The shooting seemed to have been the result of an earlier altercation, police said.

The woman was reported to be in good condition at a hospital, but she won’t tell police much.

The bigger question, however, is why whatever argument took place led the shooter to consider gunfire as the default solution?

For that matter, why are so many drivers going more than 100 mph, darting in and out of traffic and causing fatal accidents? As I reported recently, Utah Highway Patrol officials said fatal accidents were up 46% in August compared to the same time in 2020. Pandemic recklessness was supposed to end when the roads filled up again, but it didn’t. The same thing is happening nationwide.

And why are people acting out on airplanes? The Federal Aviation Administration started roughly as many investigations into unruly passengers during the first nine months of this year as it did in the previous five years combined. Flight attendants say the requirement to wear a mask leads to most of the problems, as does alcohol consumption.

As much as a ban on alcohol would help, surely there must be more to it than that. Could a mask and a few drinks really turn so many people into raging lunatics?

A number of factors might be responsible for the increase in violent crime and reckless driving. One is the movement, after last summer’s riots, to defund police in many communities.

As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, city leaders in Portland, Oregon, are trying to stem the rise in murders by starting a police unit focused on gun violence, but they can’t find enough police officers willing to join because of all the recent criticism and focus on police tactics.

The Seattle Times recently lambasted that city’s decision to continue to cut funding, despite the loss of almost 300 officers. Common sense says the more officers you have, the more visible they are, leading to fewer crimes.

Also, the pandemic has emptied jails. From June 2019 to June 2020, the inmate population in local jails fell by 185,000, mostly due to worries about COVID-19 transmission, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

It’s important to keep perspective in all this. Despite a large increase in homicides last year, the number is far less than it was in the 1990s.

And yes, the pandemic has hurt a lot of people financially as well as physically, although the unemployment rate was worse during the great recession than it is now, without all the crime.

Perhaps the most troubling question is this: Is the veneer of civilization so thin that a pandemic’s temporary disruption leads so many to act so poorly? If so, we may have bigger problems than anything a mask could solve.