- Why 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
- Are we training our children to kill?
- Iam 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 American 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
bed. 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
- 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 U.S. 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
- 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 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
- 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 responses.
- 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
- "Few researchers bother any longer to dispute that
bloodshed on TV and in the movies has aneffect 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: Desensitization
- 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.
- Brutalization and 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 in 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 three-year-old.
- 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, 1992).
- Classical conditioning
- 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 violent.
- 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 resistance.
- Operant conditioning
- 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 crisis.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Role models
- 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 population 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 about
- 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.
- Reality Check
- 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 © 1991)
- Unlearning violence
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 Games
- 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/http://www.gamesproject.org/.
This list is updated periodically. Others are encouraged to make recommendations
in their "Add your favorites" section.
- Fighting back
- 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. 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
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 guilt.
- 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 here.
- 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
- 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.
- Every parent in America desperately needs to be warned
of the impact of TV and other violent media on children. But the TV networks--our
key means of public education in America--are stonewalling.
- "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
- That's powerful. That's censure, not censorship. We ought
to have the moral courage to censure people who think that violence is
- 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
- 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,