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Peacefulness, COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd

The first factor impeding U.S. peacefulness is inequality. A second factor is the militarization of foreign policy and domestic policing.

A protest wearing a face mask with the words "I can't breathe"
A protester wearing a face mask with the words "I can't breathe" at a May 26 gathering near where George Floyd was killed.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

The Institute for Economics and Peace ranks 163 nations and territories according to relative levels of peacefulness. The Global Peace Index (GPI) criteria are “Societal Safety & Security, Domestic & International Conflict, and Militarization.” Iceland ranks first, Afghanistan last, Canada sixth and the United States 121st. Factors behind the low U.S. ranking shed light on ineffective U.S. responses to the pandemic, our wealthy country’s failure to meet the essential needs of its people, and the flawed model of policing and public safety demonstrated by the police killing of George Floyd.

The first factor impeding peacefulness is inequality. Sociologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket examined basic indicators of social well-being and compared outcomes in more equitable countries (Scandinavia and European democracies) with those in the United States. Benefits of living in the more equitable societies included: higher empathy, trust, life expectancy, cooperation, community cohesion, self-esteem, and social mobility; lower rates of alcohol and drug addiction, infant mortality, child poverty, crime and violent crime, including homicides; better physical and mental health; greater gender equality in employment, political participation, earnings, and economic autonomy; less social distancing and obesity; fewer prisoners and punitive prisons; less belligerent foreign policies and more generous foreign aid.

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Striking inequalities in U.S.

The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that 90% of U.S. household wealth is held by the richest 20%, with the richest 1% holding 40%. The upper middle class and middle class, together comprising 40% of households, held 10% of household wealth. The remaining 40%, lower middle class and poorer households, held just three-tenths of 1% of the nation’s household wealth. Not surprisingly, Wilkinson and Picket’s research showed the highly unequal United States last or near last in almost every measure of social well-being, which helps explain its low GPI ranking. Massive inequalities lead to inequities that undermine “societal safety and security,” aggravate domestic conflicts and impede good governance.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
A second factor contributing to the low U.S. peacefulness ranking is the militarization of foreign policy and domestic policing. Here, national security is associated narrowly with military power; public safety with armed police. U.S. war spending is greater than the next 10 high-spending nations and it accounts for more than half of the U.S. discretionary budget. As the IEP notes, “For years funds have been insufficiently allocated to healthcare, housing, education, and other essential services [in order] to prioritize national security and defense.” Essential services take another hit because local funding for militarized policing strains many city budgets.

National Security and public safety are undermined by inequality and the massive costs of endless wars, the insatiable desires of the military industrial complex, and the militarization of domestic policing. Armed police, like their military counterparts, are expensive and ill-equipped to address communities suffering the consequences of inequality, poverty, low wages, a dysfunctional health system, racism, and underinvestment in housing, education, and mental health.

The need to transform policing

When militarized systems of “public safety” bring police carrying racism and guns into situations where they don’t belong, people like George Floyd get killed. When COVED-19 strikes amidst a public health system gutted after years of neglect and a for-profit health care system reigning supreme, hundreds of thousands of Americans die. “Defunding” militarized policing and the U.S. military is a vital component in building a more peaceful society. “Defunding” doesn’t mean eliminating. It means reallocating resources and redefining missions in order to provide human and financial resources to systems better suited to meeting essential needs, including public safety and security.

Improving peacefulness and our nation’s GPI ranking will require transforming policing as part of broader efforts to promote equity at all levels of governance. Medicare for all would be a good start. Guaranteeing all Americans an adequate retirement income by subjecting all income to the Social Security tax would help too. And reducing military spending and establishing progressive wealth and income taxes for the richest 20% of Americans who control 90% of household wealth could provide funds needed for the transformation of our communities and nation.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is emeritus professor of Justice & Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas (retired).


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