Trained to Kill
- Christianity Today,
August 10, 1998
Trained to Kill - A military expert on the psychology of killing
explains how today's media condition kids to pull the trigger. David
are kids shooting their classmates?
David Grossman is a military
psychologist who coined the term killology for a new interdisciplinary field:
the study of the methods and psychological effects of training army recruits to
circumvent their natural inhibitions to killing fellow human beings. Here he
marshals unsettling evidence that the same tactics used in training soldiers are
at work in our media and entertainment. CT thinks that parents, the church,
scholars, and the government must come together to study this question more
intensely: Are we training our children to kill? I am from Jonesboro, Arkansas.
I travel the world training medical, law enforcement, and U.S. military
personnel about the realities of warfare. I try to make those who carry deadly
force keenly aware of the magnitude of killing. Too many law enforcement and
military personnel act like "cowboys," never stopping to think about who they
are and what they are called to do. I hope I am able to give them a reality
So here I am, a world traveler
and an expert in the field of "killology," and the largest school massacre in
history happens in my hometown of Jonesboro, Arkansas. That was the March 24
schoolyard shooting deaths of four girls and a teacher. Ten others were injured,
and two boys, ages 11 and 13, are in jail, charged with murder.
My son goes to one of the
middle schools in town, so my aunt in Florida called us that day and asked, "Was
that Joe's school?" And we said, "We haven't heard about it." My aunt in Florida
knew about the shootings before we did!
We turned on the television and
discovered the shootings took place down the road from us but, thank goodness,
not at Joe's school. I'm sure almost all parents in Jonesboro that night hugged
their children and said, "Thank God it wasn't you," as they tucked them into
But there was also a lot of
guilt because some parents in Jonesboro couldn't say that.
I spent the first three days
after the tragedy at Westside Middle School, where the shootings took place,
working with the counselors, teachers, students, and parents. None of us had
ever done anything like this before. I train people how to react to trauma in
the military; but how do you do it with kids after a massacre in their school? I
was the lead trainer for the counselors and clergy the night after the
shootings, and the following day we debriefed the teachers in groups. Then the
counselors and clergy, working with the teachers, debriefed the students,
allowing them to work through everything that had happened. Only people who
share a trauma can give each other the understanding, acceptance, and
forgiveness needed to understand what happened, and then they can begin the long
process of trying to understand why it happened.
Virus of violence
To understand the why behind
Jonesboro and Springfield and Pearl and Paducah, and all the other outbreaks of
this "virus of violence," we need to understand first the magnitude of the
problem. The per capita murder rate doubled in this country between 1957--when
the FBI started keeping track of the data--and 1992. A fuller picture of the
problem, however, is indicated by the rate people are attempting to kill one
another--the aggravated assault rate. That rate in America has gone from around
60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per 100,000 by the middle of this decade. As
bad as this is, it would be much worse were it not for two major factors.
First is the increase in the
imprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in America nearly
quadrupled between 1975 and 1992. According to criminologist John J. DiIulio,
"dozens of credible empirical analyses . . . leave no doubt that the increased
use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes." If it were not for our
tremendous imprisonment rate (the highest of any industrialized nation), the
aggravated assault rate and the murder rate would undoubtedly be even higher.
Children don't naturally kill;
they learn it from violence in the home and most pervasively, from violence as
entertainment in television, movies, and interactive video games.
The second factor keeping the
murder rate from being any worse is medical technology. According to the
Army Medical Service Corps, a wound that would have killed nine out of ten
soldiers in World War II, nine out of ten could have survived in Vietnam. Thus,
by a very conservative estimate, if we had 1940-level medical technology today,
the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is. The magnitude of the
problem has been held down by the development of sophisticated lifesaving skills
and techniques, such as helicopter medevacs, 911 operators, paramedics, cpr,
trauma centers, and medicines.
However, the crime rate is
still at a phenomenally high level, and this is true worldwide. In Canada,
according to their Center for Justice, per capita assaults increased almost
fivefold between 1964 and 1993, attempted murder increased nearly sevenfold, and
murders doubled. Similar trends can be seen in other countries in the per capita
violent crime rates reported to Interpol between 1977 and 1993. In Australia and
New Zealand, the assault rate increased approximately fourfold, and the murder
rate nearly doubled in both nations. The assault rate tripled in Sweden, and
approximately doubled in Belgium, Denmark, England-Wales, France, Hungary,
Netherlands, and Scotland, while all these nations had an associated (but
smaller) increase in murder.
This virus of violence is
occurring worldwide. The explanation for it has to be some new factor that is
occurring in all of these countries. There are many factors involved, and none
should be discounted: for example, the prevalence of guns in our society. But
violence is rising in many nations with draco-nian gun laws. And though we
should never downplay child abuse, poverty, or racism, there is only one new
variable present in each of these countries, bearing the exact same fruit: media
violence presented as entertainment for children.
Killing is unnatural
Before retiring from the
military, I spent almost a quarter of a century as an army infantry officer and
a psychologist, learning and studying how to enable people to kill. Believe me,
we are very good at it. But it does not come naturally; you have to be taught to
kill. And just as the army is conditioning people to kill, we are
indiscriminately doing the same thing to our children, but without the
After the Jonesboro killings,
the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Juvenile Violence
came to town and said that children don't naturally kill. It is a learned skill.
And they learn it from abuse and violence in the home and, most pervasively,
from violence as entertainment in television, the movies, and interactive video
Killing requires training
because there is a built-in aversion to killing one's own kind. I can best
illustrate this from drawing on my own work in studying killing in the military.
We all know that you can't have
an argument or a discussion with a frightened or angry human being.
Vasoconstriction, the narrowing
of the blood vessels, has literally closed down the forebrain--that great gob of
gray matter that makes you a human being and distinguishes you from a dog. When
those neurons close down, the midbrain takes over and your thought processes and
reflexes are indistinguishable from your dog's. If you've worked with animals,
you have some understanding of what happens to frightened human beings on the
battlefield. The battlefield and violent crime are in the realm of midbrain
Within the midbrain there is a
powerful, God-given resistance to killing your own kind. Every species, with a
few exceptions, has a hardwired resistance to killing its own kind in
territorial and mating battles. When animals with antlers and horns fight one
another, they head butt in a harmless fashion. But when they fight any other
species, they go to the side to gut and gore.
Piranhas will turn their fangs
on anything, but they fight one another with flicks of the tail. Rattlesnakes
will bite anything, but they wrestle one another. Almost every species has this
hardwired resistance to killing its own kind.
When we human beings are
overwhelmed with anger and fear, we slam head-on into that midbrain resistance
that generally prevents us from killing. Only sociopaths--who by definition
don't have that resistance--lack this innate violence immune system.
Throughout human history, when
humans fight each other, there is a lot of posturing. Adversaries make loud
noises and puff themselves up, trying to daunt the enemy. There is a lot of
fleeing and submission. Ancient battles were nothing more than great shoving
matches. It was not until one side turned and ran that most of the killing
happened, and most of that was stabbing people in the back. All of the ancient
military historians report that the vast majority of killing happened in pursuit
when one side was fleeing.
"Few researchers bother any
longer to dispute that bloodshed on TV and in the movies has an effect on kids
who witness it." (Time, April 6, 1998)
In more modern times, the
average firing rate was incredibly low in Civil War battles. Patty Griffith
demonstrates that the killing potential of the average Civil War regiment was
anywhere from five hundred to a thousand men per minute. The actual killing rate
was only one or two men per minute per regiment (The Battle Tactics of the
American Civil War). At the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 27,000 muskets picked
up from the dead and dying after the battle, 90 percent were loaded.
This is an anomaly, because it
took 95 percent of their time to load muskets and only 5 percent to fire. But
even more amazingly, of the thousands of loaded muskets, over half had multiple
loads in the barrel--one with 23 loads in the barrel.
In reality, the average man
would load his musket and bring it to his shoulder, but he could not bring
himself to kill. He would be brave, he would stand shoulder to shoulder, he
would do what he was trained to do; but at the moment of truth, he could not
bring himself to pull the trigger. And so he lowered the weapon and loaded it
again. Of those who did fire, only a tiny percentage fired to hit. The vast
majority fired over the enemy's head.
During World War II, U.S. Army
Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did
in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what
they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual
riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier.
That is the reality of the
battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to
participate. Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves
for their nation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight
into human nature; but when the military became aware of that, they
systematically went about the process of trying to fix this "problem." From the
military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15
percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the
Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And
by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent.
The methods in this madness:
How the military increases the
killing rate of soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is
doing the same thing to our children. The training methods militaries use are
brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling.
I will explain these in the military context and show how these same factors are
contributing to the phenomenal increase of violence in our culture.
desensitization are what happens at boot camp. From the moment you step off the
bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at
attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals
take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked
and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to
break down your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that
embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are
desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill
in your brutal new world.
Something very similar to this
desensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violence
the media--but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 months when a
child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a
child can watch something happening on television and mimic that action. But it
isn't until children are six or seven years old that the part of the brain kicks
in that lets them understand where information comes from.
Even though young children have
some understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable
to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.
When young children see
somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them
it is as though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or
five watch a "splatter" movie, learning to relate to a character for the first
90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend
is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of
introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and then
butchering that friend in front of your child's eyes.
And this happens to our
children hundreds upon hundreds of times.
Sure, they are told: "Hey, it's
all for fun. Look, this isn't real, it's just TV." And they nod their little
heads and say okay. But they can't tell the difference.
Can you remember a point in
your life or in your children's lives when dreams, reality, and television were
all jumbled together? That's what it is like to be at that level of
psychological development. That's what the media are doing to them.
The Journal of the American
Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact
of TV violence. The research demonstrated what happened in numerous nations
after television made its appearance as compared to nations and regions without
TV. The two nations or regions being compared are demographically and ethnically
identical; only one variable is different: the presence of television. In every
nation, region, or city with television, there is an immediate explosion of
violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the
murder rate. Why 15 years? That is how long it takes for the brutalization of a
three- to five-year-old to reach the "prime crime age." That is how long it
takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a
Today the data linking violence
in the media to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer and
tobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impact of
brutalization by the media. The Journal of the American Medical Association
concluded that "the introduction of television in the 1950's caused a subsequent
doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., long-term childhood exposure to television
is a causal factor behind approximately one half of the homicides committed in
the United States, or approximately 10,000 homicides annually." The article went
on to say that ". . . if, hypothetically, television technology had never been
developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United
States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults" (June 10,
Classical conditioning is like
the famous case of Pavlov's dogs you learned about in Psychology 101: The dogs
learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned,
the dogs could not hear the bell without salivating.
The Japanese were masters at
using classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese
prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind
them. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch and
bayonet "their" prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill another human
being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them on in
their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these situations,
but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able to use these
kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large audience to associate
pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers
who had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in
months, and to so-called comfort girls.
The result? They learned to
associate committing violent acts with pleasure.
The Japanese found these kinds
of techniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very large
numbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant
conditioning (which we will look at shortly) teaches you to kill, but classical
conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it.
This technique is so morally
reprehensible that there are very few examples of it in modern U.S. military
training; but there are some clear-cut examples of it being done by the media to
our children. What is happening to our children is the reverse of the aversion
therapy portrayed in the movie A Clockwork Orange. In A Clockwork Orange, a
brutal sociopath, a mass murderer, is strapped to a chair and forced to watch
violent movies while he is injected with a drug that nauseates him. So he sits
and gags and retches as he watches the movies. After hundreds of repetitions of
this, he associates violence with nausea, and it limits his ability to be
Every time a child plays an
interactive video game, he is learning the exact same conditioned reflex skills
as a soldier or police officer in training.
We are doing the exact
opposite: Our children watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death, and
they learn to associate it with their favorite soft drink and candy bar, or
their girlfriend's perfume.
After the Jonesboro shootings,
one of the high-school teachers told me how her students reacted when she told
them about the shootings at the middle school. "They laughed," she told me with
dismay. A similar reaction happens all the time in movie theaters when there is
bloody violence. The young people laugh and cheer and keep right on eating
popcorn and drinking pop. We have raised a generation of barbarians who have
learned to associate violence with pleasure, like the Romans cheering and
snacking as the Christians were slaughtered in the Colosseum.
The result is a phenomenon that
functions much like AIDS, which I call AVIDS--Acquired Violence Immune
Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS has never killed anybody. It destroys your immune
system, and then other diseases that shouldn't kill you become fatal. Television
violence by itself does not kill you. It destroys your violence immune system
and conditions you to derive pleasure from violence. And once you are at close
range with another human being, and it's time for you to pull that trigger,
Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome can destroy your midbrain
The third method the military
uses is operant conditioning, a very powerful procedure of stimulus-response,
stimulus-response. A benign example is the use of flight simulators to train
pilots. An airline pilot in training sits in front of a flight simulator for
endless hours; when a particular warning light goes on, he is taught to react in
a certain way.
When another warning light goes
on, a different reaction is required. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response,
stimulus- response. One day the pilot is actually flying a jumbo jet; the plane
is going down, and 300 people are screaming behind him. He is wetting his seat
cushion, and he is scared out of his wits; but he does the right thing. Why?
Because he has been conditioned to respond reflexively to this particular
When people are frightened or
angry, they will do what they have been conditioned to do. In fire drills,
children learn to file out of the school in orderly fashion. One day there is a
real fire, and they are frightened out of their wits; but they do exactly what
they have been conditioned to do, and it saves their lives.
The military and law
enforcement community have made killing a conditioned response. This has
substantially raised the firing rate on the modern battlefield.
Whereas infantry training in
World War II used bull's-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire at realistic,
man-shaped silhouettes that pop into their field of view. That is the stimulus.
The trainees have only a split second to engage the target. The conditioned
response is to shoot the target, and then it drops. Stimulus-response,
stimulus-response, stimulus-response--soldiers or police officers experience
hundreds of repetitions. Later, when soldiers are on the battlefield or a police
officer is walking a beat and somebody pops up with a gun, they will shoot
reflexively and shoot to kill. We know that 75 to 80 percent of the shooting on
the modern battlefield is the result of this kind of stimulus-response training.
Now, if you're a little
troubled by that, how much more should we be troubled by the fact that every
time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the
exact same conditioned reflex and motor skills.
I was an expert witness in a
murder case in South Carolina offering mitigation for a kid who was facing the
death penalty. I tried to explain to the jury that interactive video games had
conditioned him to shoot a gun to kill. He had spent hundreds of dollars on
video games learning to point and shoot, point and shoot. One day he and his
buddy decided it would be fun to rob the local convenience store. They walked
in, and he pointed a snub-nosed .38 pistol at the clerk's head. The clerk turned
to look at him, and the defendant shot reflexively from about six feet. The
bullet hit the clerk right between the eyes--which is a pretty remarkable shot
with that weapon at that range--and killed this father of two. Afterward, we
asked the boy what happened and why he did it. It clearly was not part of the
plan to kill the guy--it was being videotaped from six different directions. He
said, "I don't know. It was a mistake. It wasn't supposed to happen."
In the military and
law-enforcement worlds, the right option is often not to shoot. But you never,
never put your quarter in that video machine with the intention of not shooting.
There is always some stimulus that sets you off. And when he was excited, and
his heart rate went up, and vasoconstriction closed his forebrain down, this
young man did exactly what he was conditioned to do: he reflexively pulled the
trigger, shooting accurately just like all those times he played video games.
This process is extraordinarily
powerful and frightening. The result is ever more homemade pseudosociopaths who
kill reflexively and show no remorse. Our children are learning to kill and
learning to like it; and then we have the audacity to say, "Oh my goodness,
what's wrong?" One of the boys allegedly involved in the Jonesboro shootings
(and they are just boys) had a fair amount of experience shooting real guns. The
other one was a nonshooter and, to the best of our knowledge, had almost no
experience shooting. Between them, those two boys fired 27 shots from a range of
over 100 yards, and they hit 15 people. That's pretty remarkable shooting. We
run into these situations often--kids who have never picked up a gun in their
lives pick up a real gun and are incredibly accurate. Why? Video games.
In the military, you are
immediately confronted with a role model: your drill sergeant. He personifies
violence and aggression. Along with military heroes, these violent role models
have always been used to influence young, impressionable minds. Today the media
are providing our children with role models, and this can be seen not just in
the lawless sociopaths in movies and TV shows, but it can also be seen in the
media-inspired, copycat aspects of the Jonesboro murders. This is the part of
these juvenile crimes that the TV networks would much rather not talk about.
Research in the 1970s
demonstrated the existence of "cluster suicides" in which the local TV reporting
of teen suicides directly caused numerous copycat suicides of impressionable
teenagers. Somewhere in every
there are potentially suicidal kids who will say to themselves, "Well, I'll show
all those people who have been mean to me. I know how to get my picture on TV,
too." Because of this research, television stations today generally do not cover
suicides. But when the pictures of teenage killers appear on TV, the effect is
the same: Somewhere there is a potentially violent little boy who says to
himself, "Well, I'll show all those people who have been mean to me. I know how
to get my picture on TV too." Thus we get copycat, cluster murders that work
their way across America like a virus spread by the six o'clock news. No matter
what someone has done, if you put his picture on TV, you have made him a
celebrity, and someone, somewhere, will emulate him.
The lineage of the Jonesboro
shootings began at Pearl, Mississippi, fewer than six months before. In Pearl, a
16-year-old boy was accused of killing his mother and then going to his school
and shooting nine students, two of whom died, including his ex- girlfriend. Two
months later, this virus spread to Paducah, Kentucky, where a 14-year-old boy
was arrested for killing three students and wounding five others.
A very important step in the
spread of this copycat crime virus occurred in Stamps, Arkansas, 15 days after
Pearl and just a little over 90 days before Jonesboro. In Stamps, a 14-year-old
boy, who was angry at his schoolmates, hid in the woods and fired at children as
they came out of school. Sound familiar? Only two children were injured in this
crime, so most of the world didn't hear about it; but it got great regional
coverage on TV, and two little boys in Jonesboro, Arkansas, probably did hear
And then there was Springfield,
Oregon, and so many others. Is this a reasonable price to pay for the TV
networks' "right" to turn juvenile defendants into celebrities and role models
by playing up their pictures on TV? Our society needs to be informed about these
crimes, but when the images of the young killers are broadcast on television,
they become role models. The average preschooler in America watches 27 hours of
television a week. The average child gets more one-on-one communication from TV
than from all her parents and teachers combined. The ultimate achievement for
our children is to get their picture on TV. The solution is simple, and it comes
straight out of the suicidology literature: The media have every right and
responsibility to tell the story, but they have no right to glorify the killers
by presenting their images on TV.
Sixty percent of men on TV are
involved in violence; 11 percent are killers. Unlike actual rates, in the media
the majority of homicide victims are women. (Gerbner 1994) In a Canadian town in
which TV was first introduced in 1973, a 160 percent increase in aggression,
hitting, shoving, and biting was documented in first- and second-grade students
after exposure, with no change in behavior in children in two control
communities. (Centerwall 1992) Fifteen years after the introduction of TV,
homicides, rapes and assaults doubled in the United States. (American Medical
Association) Twenty percent of suburban high schoolers endorse shooting someone
"who has stolen something from you." (Toch and Silver 1993) In the United
States, approximately two million teenagers carry knives, guns, clubs or razors.
As many as 135,000 take them to
school. (America by the Numbers) Americans spend over $100 million on toy guns
every year. (What Counts: The Complete Harper's Index (c) 1991)
What is the road home from the
dark and lonely place to which we have traveled? One route infringes on civil
liberties. The city of New York has made remarkable progress in recent years in
bringing down crime rates, but they may have done so at the expense of some
civil liberties. People who are fearful say that is a price they are willing to
Another route would be to "just
turn it off"; if you don't like what is on television, use the "off" button.
Yet, if all the parents of the
15 shooting victims in Jonesboro had protected their children from TV violence,
it wouldn't have done a bit of good. Because somewhere there were two little
boys whose parents didn't "just turn it off." On the night of the Jonesboro
shootings, clergy and counselors were working in small groups in the hospital
waiting room, comforting the groups of relatives and friends of the victims.
Then they noticed one woman sitting alone silently.
A counselor went over to the
woman and discovered that she was the mother of one of the girls who had been
killed. She had no friends, no husband, no family with her as she sat in the
hospital, stunned by her loss. "I just came to find out how to get my little
girl's body back," she said. But the body had been taken to Little Rock, 100
miles away, for an autopsy. Her very next concern was, "I just don't know how
I'm going to pay for the funeral. I don't know how I can afford it." That little
girl was truly all she had in all the world. Come to Jonesboro, friend, and tell
this mother she should "just turn it off." Another route to reduced violence is
gun control. I don't want to downplay that option, but America is trapped in a
vicious cycle when we talk about gun control. Americans don't trust the
government; they believe that each of us should be responsible for taking care
of ourselves and our families. That's one of our great strengths--but it is also
a great weakness. When the media foster fear and perpetuate a milieu of
violence, Americans arm themselves in order to deal with that violence. And the
more guns there are out there, the more violence there is. And the more violence
there is, the greater the desire for guns.
We are trapped in this spiral
of self-dependence and lack of trust. Real progress will never be made until we
reduce this level of fear. As a historian, I tell you it will take
decades--maybe even a century-- before we wean Americans off their guns. And
until we reduce the level of fear and of violent crime, Americans would sooner
die than give up their guns.
Top 10 Nonviolent Video
The following list of
nonviolent video games has been developed by The Games Project. These games are
ranked high for their social and play value and technical merit.
1. Bust a Move 2. Tetris 3.
Theme Park 4. Absolute Pinball 5. Myst 6. NASCAR 7. SimCity 8. The Incredible
Machine 9. Front Page Sports: Golf 10. Earthworm Jim
For descriptions, publishers,
and prices for these games, including a searchable database for additional
recommendations, check The Games
Project Web site at: http://www.gamesproject.org/.
This list is updated periodically. Others are encouraged to make recommendations
in their "Add your favorites" section.
We need to make progress in the
fight against child abuse, racism, and poverty, and in rebuilding our families.
No one is denying that the breakdown of the family is a factor. But nations
without our divorce rates are also having increases in violence. Besides,
research demonstrates that one major source of harm associated with
single-parent families occurs when the TV becomes both the nanny and the second
parent. Work is needed in all these areas, but there is a new front--taking on
the producers and purveyers of media violence. Simply put, we ought to work
toward legislation that outlaws violent video games for children.
There is no constitutional
right for a child to play an interactive video game that teaches him
weapons-handling skills or that simulates destruction of God's creatures. The
day may also be coming when we are able to seat juries in America who are
willing to sock it to the networks in the only place they really understand--
their wallets. After the Jonesboro shootings, Time magazine said: "As for media
violence, the debate there is fast approaching the same point that discussions
about the health impact of tobacco reached some time ago--it's over. Few
researchers bother any longer to dispute that bloodshed on TV and in the movies
has an effect on kids who witness it" (April 6, 1998). Most of all, the American
people need to learn the lesson of Jonesboro: Violence is not a game; it's not
fun, it's not something that we do for entertainment.
Every parent in America
desperately needs to be warned of the impact of TV and other violent media on
children, just as we would warn them of some widespread carcinogen. The problem
is that the TV networks, which use the public airwaves we have licensed to them,
are our key means of public education in America. And they are stonewalling.
In the days after the Jonesboro
shootings, I was interviewed on Canadian national TV, the British Broadcasting
Company, and many U.S. and international radio shows and newspapers. But the
American television networks simply would not touch this aspect of the story.
Never in my experience as a historian and a psychologist have I seen any
institution in America so clearly responsible for so very many deaths, and so
clearly abusing their publicly licensed authority and power to cover up their
Time after time, idealistic
young network producers contacted me from one of the networks, fascinated by the
irony that an expert in the field of violence and aggression was living in
Jonesboro and was at the school almost from the beginning. But unlike all the
other media, these network news stories always died a sudden, silent death when
the network's powers-that-be said, "Yeah, we need this story like we need a hole
in the head." Many times since the shooting I have been asked, "Why weren't you
on TV talking about the stuff in your book?" And every time my answer had to be,
"The TV networks are burying this story. They know they are guilty, and they
want to delay the retribution as long as they can." As an author and expert on
killing, I believe I have spoken on the subject at every Rotary, Kiwanis, and
Lions Club in a 50-mile radius of Jonesboro. So when the plague of satellite
dishes descended upon us like huge locusts, many people here were aware of the
scientific data linking TV violence and violent crime.
The networks will stick their
lenses anywhere and courageously expose anything. Like flies on open wounds,
they find nothing too private or shameful for their probing lenses--except
themselves, and their share of guilt in the terrible, tragic crime that happened
A CBS executive told me his
plan. He knows all about the link between media and violence. His own in-house
people have advised him to protect his child from the poison his industry is
bringing to America's children. He is not going to expose his child to TV until
she's old enough to learn how to read. And then he will select very carefully
what she sees. He and his wife plan to send her to a daycare center that has no
television, and he plans to show her only age-appropriate videos.
That should be the bare minimum
with children: Show them only age-appropriate videos, and think hard about what
is age appropriate.
The most benign product you are
going to get from the networks are 22-minute sitcoms or cartoons providing
instant solutions for all of life's problems, interlaced with commercials
telling you what a slug you are if you don't ingest the right sugary substances
and don't wear the right shoes.
The worst product your child is
going to get from the networks is represented by one TV commentator who told me,
"Well, we only have one really violent show on our network, and that is NYPD
Blue. I'll admit that that is bad, but it is only one night a week." I wondered
at the time how she would feel if someone said, "Well, I only beat my wife in
front of the kids one night a week." The effect is the same.
"You're not supposed to know
who I am!" said NYPD Blue star Kim Delaney, in response to young children who
recognized her from her role on that show. According to USA Weekend, she was
shocked that underage viewers watch her show, which is rated TV- 14 for gruesome
crimes, raw language, and explicit sex scenes. But they do watch, don't they?
Education about media and violence does make a difference. I was on a radio
call-in show in San Antonio, Texas. A woman called and said, "I would never have
had the courage to do this two years ago. But let me tell you what happened. You
tell me if I was right.
"My 13-year-old boy spent the
night with a neighbor boy.
After that night, he started having nightmares.
I got him to admit what the nightmares were about. While he was at the
neighbor's house, they watched splatter movies all night: people cutting people
up with chain saws and stuff like that.
"I called the neighbors and
told them, 'Listen: you are sick people. I wouldn't feel any different about you
if you had given my son pornography or alcohol. And I'm not going to have
anything further to do with you or your son--and neither is anybody else in this
neighborhood, if I have anything to do with it--until you stop what you're
doing.' " That's powerful. That's censure, not censorship. We ought to have the
moral courage to censure people who think that violence is legitimate
One of the most effective ways
for Christians to be salt and light is by simply confronting the culture of
volence as entertainment. A friend of mine, a retired army officer who teaches
at a nearby middle school, uses the movie Gettysburg to teach his students about
the Civil War. A scene in that movie very dramatically depicts the tragedy of
Pickett's Charge. As the Confederate troops charge into the Union lines, the
cannons fire into their masses at point- blank range, and there is nothing but a
red mist that comes up from the smoke and flames. He told me that when he first
showed this heart-wrenching, tragic scene to his students, they laughed.
He began to confront this
behavior ahead of time by saying: "In the past, students have laughed at this
scene, and I want to tell you that this is completely unacceptable behavior.
This movie depicts a tragedy in American history, a tragedy that happened to our
ancestors, and I will not tolerate any laughing." From then on, when he played
that scene to his students, over the years, he says there was no laughter.
Instead, many of them wept.
What the media teach is
unnatural, and if confronted in love and assurance, the house they have built on
the sand will crumble. But our house is built on the rock.
If we don't actively present
our values, then the media will most assuredly inflict theirs on our children,
and the children, like those in that class watching Gettysburg, simply won't
know any better.
There are many other things
that the Christian community can do to help change our culture. Youth activities
can provide alternatives to television, and churches can lead the way in
providing alternative locations for latchkey children. Fellowship groups can
provide guidance and support to young parents as they strive to raise their
children without the destructive influences of the media. Mentoring programs can
pair mature, educated adults with young parents to help them through the
preschool ages without using the TV as a babysitter.
And most of all, the churches
can provide the clarion call of decency and love and peace as an alternative to
death and destruction--not just for the sake of the church, but for the
transformation of our culture.
Lt. Col. Dave
Grossman, an expert on the psychology of killing, retired from the U.S. Army in
February. He now teaches psychology at Arkansas State University, directs the
Killology Research Group in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and has written On Killing: The
Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Little, Brown and
Co., 1996). This article was adapted from a lecture he gave at Bethel College,
North Newton, Kansas, in April.
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