It's time to stop training our kids 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. So here I am, a world traveler and an expert in the field of "killology," and a school massacre happens in my hometown. The March 24, 1998 schoolyard shooting in Jonesboro left four girls and a teacher dead and ten others injured. Two boys, ages 11 and 13 at the time, are now serving time for the killings, which—until topped by last month's mayhem in Littleton, Colorado—were the deadliest school shooting in American history.
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. 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.
To understand the why behind Jonesboro, Littleton, and all the other outbreaks of this "virus of violence," we need first to understand 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 more than 440 per 100,000 by the middle of this decade. As bad as this is, it would be much worse were it not for our tremendous imprisonment rate and today's medical technology and sophisticated lifesaving skills and techniques.
But violent crime is also occurring at record levels in countries such as Canada, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Hungary. While guns do prevail in our society, violence is also rising in nations that have draconian gun laws. And although 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.
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 safeguards.
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 games.
Killing requires training because within the midbrain, there is a powerful, God-given resistance to killing your own kind. The average firing rate was incredibly low in Civil War battles, for example. And during World War II, U.S. Army researchers discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier. 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 this, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this "problem." 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 more than 90 percent.
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.
Brutalization and desensitization are what happens at boot camp. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. 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 in the mediabut 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. Even though young children have some understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable to clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality. When they see somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it were actually happening.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. This 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 were demographically and ethnically identical; only one variable was different: the presence of television. In every nation, region, or city with television, there was 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 3- to 5-year-old to reach the "prime crime age." That's how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a 3-year-old.
Another military training method, 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. 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 third method is called operant conditioning, which the military and law enforcement community have used to make killing a conditioned response. Whereas target training in World War II used bull's-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire at realistic, man-shaped silhouettes that pop up in their field of view—that's the stimulus. The trainees only have a split second to engage the target, and then it drops. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response—soldiers or police officers experience hundreds of repetitions of this. Later, when they're out 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. Seventy-five 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 this, how much more should you 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. (You never put your quarter into the video machine with the intention of not shooting.) 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.
One of the boys found guilty in the Jonesboro shootings (and they are just boys) had a fair amount of experience shooting real guns. The other one, to the best of our knowledge, had almost no experience shooting. Between them, those two boys fired 27 shots from a range of more than 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, violent role models have always been used to influence young, impressionable minds. When the images of young killers are broadcast on television, they become role models. The ultimate achievement for our children is to get their picture on TV. 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.
What is the road home from the dark and lonely place to which we have traveled? One 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. Somewhere there were two little boys whose parents didn't "just turn it off."
Another route to reduced violence is gun control. But it will take decades—maybe even a century—before we wean Americans off their guns. And until we reduce the level of fear and violent crime, Americans would sooner die than give up their guns. We also need to progress in rebuilding our families. But nations without our divorce rates are also noting increases in violence.
Work is needed in many areas, but there is a new front—taking on the producers and purveyors of media violence. Simply put, we ought to work toward legislation that outlaws violent video games for children. There is no constitutional right for children to play an interactive video game that teaches 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 agoit'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."
Most of all, the American people need to learn the lessons of Jonesboro and Littleton: Violence is not a game; it's not fun, it's not something that we do for entertainment. Violence kills.
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 by Canadian TV, the BBC, and many radio shows and newspapers. But the U.S. 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 guilt.
A CBS executive told me his plan. He knows all about the link between media and violence and is determined to protect his own 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 very carefully select what she sees.
He and his wife plan to send her to a day-care center that has no television and to show her only age-appropriate videos. This should be the bare minimum: Show children only age-appropriate videos, and think hard about what is age-appropriate.
Education about media and violence does make a difference. I was recently on a radio call-in show in San Antonio, Texas. A woman called and said, "My 13-year-old boy spent the night with a neighbor boy. After that, he started having nightmares. I got him to admit that while he was there, 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. And we ought to have the moral courage to censure people who think that violence is legitimate entertainment. One of the most effective ways for Christians to be salt and light is by simply confronting the culture of violence as entertainment. 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 simply won't know any better. I hope that our 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 is an expert on the psychology of killing and a recent retiree from the U.S. Army. Grossman 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 was adapted from a lecture given at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas in 1998. Previous versions have already been published, including in Christianity Today.All active news articles