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Authors Note: This is the first in a two-part series. Part 2 will publish Tuesday, February 28, 2018.
There can be little doubt that Homo Sapiens is the most dangerous predator the world has ever produced. We have enormous brains capable of building systems to overcome friction, the ability to accomplish complex planning within those systems, and opposable thumbs to assist in the execution of the plan. We have canine teeth and forward-looking eyes. We are the most accomplished killers in the animal kingdom, exceptional when hunting alone, but capable of cooperating in large groups to make a kill.
And we kill each other every single day of the year.
We have become so good at killing that we are capable of killing tens of thousands of our own kind within the milli-second burst of an atomic blast – and we have done that. We have the ability to eliminate, forever, any other species of animal life on the planet – and we have done that, too.
We are so good at killing that we have created War Colleges to confer advanced degrees on people who study even more efficient ways to kill.
We kill each other for cause, and sometimes we kill each other for no reason at all. Sometimes we kill for mere pleasure. Often, we kill for political or religious reasons, and to that end we have even built death factories designed to expedite our ability to slaughter each other en masse.
Human beings are the most dangerously unpredictable animals on earth, particularly when under the influence of foreign substances, or suffering from mental illness, or under the ecstatic sway of politics or religion. And with the exception of a few remaining viruses and diseases, we have rendered virtually every organism on the planet safe to us.
Except our own kind.
But while it is indisputable that human beings are planet earth’s finest expression of hunter-killers, it is critical to remember that those are acquired skills. No one is born with them. We are born with those capabilities, and have evolved to accommodate and refine their successful application, but the skills required to kill must be taught, they must be learned, and they must be practiced.
This morning, while I was plowing snow with the tractor, and while laboring under the heavy news about yet another school massacre, I began to think long and hard about the phenomenon of human predators who, with increasing frequency, spring to us out of our environment. Who are these killing machines that appear suddenly, efficiently, and ferociously out of the howling cultural wilderness to ambush and slaughter the innocent?
And where are they coming from? Where does a 14-year old boy who has never used a firearm in his life, and who stole the weapon he used in his crime, acquire the skill to fire 8 rounds from a .22 caliber pistol and score 8 hits – 5 of them headshots?1
The answer is they are coming from everywhere, and they are learning and practicing those skills in their living rooms.
What’s obvious — and almost nothing about our pervasively violent culture is obvious — is that in a nation where 1 in 5 adults is taking either anti-depressants or anxiety medications, where the average American adult marinates in combined media for 721 minutes2 – that’s 12 hours – each and every day, and where 91% of American children play video games — many of them glorifying and rewarding unconscionable first-person violence — is that we have a runaway cultural catastrophe on our hands.
“Not every kid who plays violent video games becomes a school killer, but all the school killers played violent video games.”
And what’s also obvious, after listening to the maddening stürm und drang of our national conversation on the topic, is that the one question that is most often left out of the conversation is also the most important question we should be asking: what is happening in our culture that is mass-producing killers in the first place?
It’s important to remember that the evidence of this epidemic doesn’t just present in episodes of mass murder or the occasional low-casualty rampage, it is a daily tidal wave of dangerous and destructive behaviors that go mostly unseen by the broader public, are often unreported, and in the case of mental illness commonly go untreated.
“All these killers are trained on video games,” he said. “They have killed millions of electronic images. They are completely desensitized to human pain and suffering.”
It’s unlikely there is any one reason for the sudden proliferation of sociopathic predators in our midst. Human societies have always suffered the burden of a very few sociopaths with homicidal tendencies. What’s different now is the sheer number of them, their age, and their lethality.
And what’s most concerning is that we aren’t having the right conversation about how to fix it. Even worse, we are now encouraging — in what can only be seen as a bizarre frustrated act of abdication — children to moderate both the tone and direction of the conversation on national television and elsewhere.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is arguably the nation’s foremost expert on “killology,” and on the topic of school-shootings. A 24 year veteran of the US Army, Grossman penned iconic works such as On Combat, and On Killing while building on the work initially begun by SLA Marshall after World War II.
Marshall’s landmark work was Men Against Fire, which controversially concluded, among other things, that during the Second World War only 1 in 4 soldiers actually fired their weapons while in contact with the enemy. While Marshall’s scientific methods have been questioned, the fact remains that no serious academic study has been produced that significantly alters his findings.
Marshall’s research, which included veterans of both the European and Pacific theatres, asked two essential questions: “Did you see the enemy?” And “Did you fire?” The results of his study alarmed military planners, who redesigned the curriculum for combat training in order to disable the “safety catch,” that critical barrier in the human mid-brain that must be overcome in order for one to willfully engage in the act of killing another human being.
And it worked. Whereas, during World War II, “Squad leaders and platoon sergeants had to move up and down the firing line kicking men to get them to fire…”3 by the time of the Vietnam War “among those who did see the enemy there appears to have been extraordinarily consistent high firing rates.”4
One of the principle changes in the killing curriculum involved the use of reactive targets. Reactive targets go down, explode, or make a rewarding sound when they are shot. What is essential is that the target display a reactive behavior. When that reaction is noted, the shooter is internally rewarded for his efforts by a little shot of dopamine – which is nature’s biochemical reward for success. And nothing is more rewarding for any shooter than knocking down a rack of steel plates, or making something explode.
There are any number of reactive target tools, including FATS simulators, used by military and police to train in realistic use of force scenarios. I have trained in many of them, often on school-shooting or active-killer scenarios, and they work.
When I learned to call for fire in the Marine Corps, raining down mortars, artillery, or air-delivered munitions on the enemy, a large portion of that training was conducted in a reactive simulator where effects on target released floods of dopamine into my brain. It felt good. When we took those skills outside, nothing was more pleasurable than destroying conex boxes parked on the sunny slopes of Camp Pendleton with 81mm mortars called in from afar. And when I learned to fire an anti-tank weapon, blowing the turret off of a captured Russian tank parked 300 yards downrange was an absolute thrill. I wanted to do it again, and again, and again.
Reactive target training works to defeat the “safety catch”.
But critically, warriors trained in these conditions are adults. Their natural proclivities against killing human beings are, at least theoretically, already fully formed and must be overcome by repetitive drilling. They must be taught to kill under extraordinary circumstances and in the context of warfare against an enemy who is also trying to kill them in mutual combat. And, perhaps most importantly, they are taught that killing innocents is antithetical to their role as warriors, counterproductive to the mission and the commander’s intent, and punishable by imprisonment or even death.
They are taught how to click OFF of safe, but they are also taught how to turn the safety back to the ON position.
“The first filter is the forebrain. A hundred things can convince your forebrain to put a gun in your hand and go to a certain point: poverty, drugs, gangs, leaders, politics, and the social learning of violence in the media…But traditionally all these things have slammed into the resistance that a frightened, angry human being confronts in the midbrain. And except with sociopaths (who, by definition, do not have this resistance), the vast, vast majority of circumstances are not sufficient to overcome this midbrain safety net. But if you are conditioned to overcome these midbrain inhibitions, then you are a walking time bomb, a pseudosociopath, just waiting for the random factors of social interaction and forebrain rationalization to put you at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
~Dave Grossman, On Killing
In March, 1998, after tandem predators attacked and killed over a dozen students at his son’s middle-school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Grossman, armed with his knowledge about how we teach lethality in humans, was inspired to begin exploring outbreaks of extreme disassociative violence amongst our nation’s children.
Since then he has written numerous books on the topic of school shootings and child killers, including Stop Teaching Our Children to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence, and his latest, Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing.
His conclusions are telegraphed in the titles, and not without well-researched and abundant support. What Grossman found was that violent, often first-person shooter video games were using the same reactive targeting and rewards system employed by military trainers to increase lethality. And to similarly lethal effect.
“Whatever you train to do, under stress, is coming out the other end. That’s why we do fire drills. That’s why we do flight simulators.
“Well, when the children play the violent video games, they’re drilling, drilling, drilling–not two times a year–every night, to kill every living creature in front of you, until you run out of targets or you run out of bullets. Now, I usually stand in front of an audience, and I say to the audience, ‘Look, if I decide that she’s one point, then he’s one point, and he’s one point, and he’s one point, and he’s one point, and she’s one point, and she’s one point.’
“Now, what’s my goal? To rack up as many points as possible.
“So, when these kids start shooting–we’re reasonably confident that in Pearl, Mississippi, and in Paducah, Kentucky, and in Jonesboro, Arkansas, these juvenile, adolescent killers set out to shoot just one person: usually their girlfriend, in one case, maybe a teacher. But, then, they kept on going! And, they gunned down every living creature in front of them, until they ran out of targets or ran out of bullets!”
In an article penned for the Daily Beast, Grossman writes:
Many factors contribute to youth violence, including poverty, drugs, gangs, and mental illness. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has made it explicitly clear that violent TV, movies, and—worst of all—video games are “the single most easily remediable contributing factor” to violence in our society.
This is not a new revelation. As early as 1994—four years before Jonesboro—the American Psychological Association (APA) released a resolution on the undeniable link between media violence and actual violence: “viewing mass media violence leads to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children, and has a long-lasting effect on behavior and personality, including criminal behavior.” In 2005 and again in 2015, the APA issued further resolutions, in which they noted that the “link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior is one of the most studied and best established … Scientific research has demonstrated an association between violent video game use and both increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement.”
Grossman has his detractors, particularly among executives across the spectrum of media industries, including print journalists, who deride his conclusions. They commonly cite the availability of the same video games, film, and television materials in countries where the problem of producing sociopathic child killers is notably less frequent. Not absent, mind you, but less frequent.
They then point to the availability of firearms in America as the link that closes the loop. Ban guns, they say, and the problem will go away on its own.
Please stay tuned. Part 2 of First Person Shooter will publish tomorrow.
- This school shooting occurred in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997. The shooter, Michael Carneal, was an avid consumer of on-line pornography, violent video games, and horror films. Three of his victims died. A lawsuit filed by his parents against the producers of that media was dismissed. The 6th US Court of Appeals rejected the suit stating it was “simply too far of a leap from shooting people on a video screen to shooting people in a classroom.” Attorney General John Ashcroft disagreed, asserting that Carneal’s marksmanship was a result of practicing with violent video games.
- On Killing, Dave Grossman
- On Killing, Dave Grossman
Bill Valenti says
Having lived in Asia for 20 years (Thailand, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong), I can confirm that all of these countries are as awash in violent media (video games, movies, “manga” comics in Japan, etc) as our youth are here in America. The crucial difference is the availability in our country of deadly weapons to anyone with a pulse and some cash, virtually no questions asked.
Craig Rullman says
As of 2015 Southern Asia trails just behind North America in rates of firearms related deaths, per 100k, and North America falls into the middle of the world pack after Central America, South America, and portions of Africa. Western and Central Asia are in the same category as the US. Only eastern Asia reports comparatively lower numbers of firearms related deaths. What is not generally available are the number of homicides committed by other means, which would be an interesting comparison. Except Russia, where the homicide rate is 4 times that of the US, despite a prohibition on individual firearms ownership.
I agree with this thus far Craig. Firearms are an efficient tool for killing humans as much as protecting them and this is a layered issue that has taken years to develop. It’s a deeper problem than the understandably emotional gun argument can illicit. We can probably agree that cars, alcohol, hospital accidents, prescription drug abuse and depression individually kill more people than firearms. Economics, broken culture (or lack of any), breakdown in family, lack of connection to a creator, the natural world, your own physicality, a higher purpose, or service to others are all in play. Shout out to the broken mental health, criminal justice and school systems, specifically those inside who keep trying.
And yes — video games. All four of my boys have grown up with early exposure to the outdoors, hunting, biking, martial arts, a cop’s-kid mom and a cop dad. They are good kids. There are no GTA rated M video sessions happening here, however there is a measurable difference in behavior during and after, first person shooter games. I probably should have destroyed the PS4 and collected iPhones long ago. In hindsight my approach would be different now.
All of this killing is really about something else in my opinion and with respect to Mr. Valenti and your statistics, I prefer to express the gift of freewill in a country that allows me to do so. This violence has less to do with the object(s) being misused to express our current state. Again — I lived (barely) through the deprivation and selfishness of the 80’s and grade, through high school was brutal at times! I do not recall any active shooter’s, school sponsored drills, or an armed police officer on campus. Popular culture is sick on several levels and our kids are suffering for it.
As a parent, the collective loss these families have suffered is difficult — even for this hardened heart to process. In the mean time I endeavor parent my kids better than yesterday and pray to the God I believe in, to comfort those suffering such unspeakable loss.
Craig Rullman says
What’s happening in your household is much, much different than what is producing these predators. Your children, I happen to know, understand cause and effect. They aren’t dunking themselves endlessly in violence and disabling their midbrains. Where that isn’t happening, the result is 180 degrees from where your children are. I have a theory I’ve been working on, but haven’t gone too public with, because it will upset a lot of people. But it has to do with the Baby Boomers, what my very good friend calls “The Lamest Generation”, who basically destroyed the nuclear family in America in their decades of narcissistic pursuits. Our arrival, as children of that generation, was essentially the same as being brought up from a bomb shelter into the rubble they made of things. And as we wandered around in that rubble, even more destructive habits have developed. Not satisfied with just having a wrecked nuclear family, our generation began the mass abdication of parental responsibility to television and media. It isn’t a fully flushed idea, but there is something to it.
john roberts says
Speaking as a classic Baby Boomer (born 1947), I can’t judge the kids now become activist because I grew up in a completely different world. In my K‑12 years the school shooting and school shooter didn’t exist even as a concept. Needless to say, the first-person shooter game wasn’t even predicted in the science fiction of the time. As for the drugs, our parents, the Greatest Generation were heavily into them, especially our mothers. Doctors prescribed uppers and downers with great abandon. Ref. the Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper.” My own mother was an example, though she never let it affect how she raised her children, though it was sometimes hard to wake her up. As for the breakup of the nuclear family, that was a long time in coming. WWII was the era of the infamous “Dear John” letter and family desertion by fathers was a plague of the Depression. We all live in the world we inherit.
Jim Cornelius says
And our children will reap what we sow.
Craig Rullman says
Indeed, there is rubble to go around. You make some good points…the diet pill thing was a craze that created strung out housewives for decades. I think it is probably worse now, as the prescribing of medicines hasn’t exactly been toned down, only…altered. Thanks, John.
J.F. Bell says
Guns, mental health, laws, and videogames are the go-to points for this issue. Each bears on the matter, but in truth — with respect to Colonel Grossman — those are more symptom than disease.
I suspect the root of this issue lies in the political minefield of how society treats its boys. It was bad when I went through middle and high school. What I’ve seen since does not suggest it’s gotten any better.
Take a kid who’s not especially popular. Treat him as guilty of a crime you haven’t determined yet. Demand he be manageable and docile, and punish him when he doesn’t act like a small adult or, worse yet, a girl. Give him rules he can’t follow and punishments that makes no sense. Tell him he’s wrong at every opportunity. If he fidgets, dope him. If he talks about guns or hunting, put a black mark in his records. Hang an omnipresent threat of disciplinary action over him and never let him forget that if he steps even thiiiiiiiiiiis much outside the line —
Keep this up for years. In the end you’ll wind up with a gelding, a lunatic, or that kid so burned out he’s perfectly content to sit back and watch the world go to hell and can’t be made to care about any of it anymore. Of the three, geldings and burnouts are dead ends, harmful only to themselves. But then there’s that third group…
Craig Rullman says
It’s interesting to note that in the moments after the Columbine shooting, students in a neighboring, rival, high school were given an announcement — over the school intercom — that active shooters at Columbine had killed many students. Hearing that, students gave a raucous cheer that could be heard through the corridors of the school. That’s a true story and drives straight to the heart of the type of children being raised all around us. Generations of that mindset has produced an unparalleled proliferation of predators.
Agreed J.F. Cant speak for raising girls, but there is an assault on the American male child in Southern California. I remember reading “Last Child in the Woods — Curing our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder — 2008” years ago and wondering what the next big distraction would be? One hundred percent most of us would have been medication candidates by today’s standards.
Jim Cornelius says
Absolutely has a negative effect on girls, too, because those boys grow up to be ineffectual, unreliable or narcissistic men. “Coincidentally” the kind of men women complain about constantly in the dating world.
Craig Rullman says
So, you’re saying they become police Captains? 🙂 Joking aside, that is solidly on point, and something I keep hearing from my daughter.
Craig Rullman says
Yes, because media and medication are what have been used to replace actual parenting.
When you have millions of people essentially mediating on violence daily via media, why is it surprising when violence manifests? We could call this praying for war or a function of quantum mechanics depending on your inclination, but evil or chaos if you prefer seeks out a weak link and is loose in the world.
Craig Rullman says
I often invite folks to take a long progress through California — mostly south of I‑80 — and to be honest about what they see. It is a truly wild badlands overrun with predators. Sure,there are pockets of the old California that remain pleasant, but they are also essentially walled-off communities. The difference between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto is a fine example.
Gary Tewalt says
Craig, great article but very disturbing.
Craig Rullman says
It is disturbing, no question, but we have options. The first one is to never, as Cris Converse wrote in her comment, to never lose our unwillingness to become victims. Thanks, Gary.