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