Why Children Kill
In August of this year, the American periodical Christianity Today published a disturbing article, entitled “Trained to Kill,” about the increasing violence among youngsters. It is a phenomenon the seriousness of which became evident once again in the rash of shootings by elementary school children in recent months. Attempting to explain this “virus of violence,” the article concludes that a large part of the blame must go to the entertainment industry. By constantly exposing young viewers to violence-as-entertainment, it contributes to a gradual desensitization of these children. Not all of them, certainly, will try to commit in real life the violence they have seen on the movies or encountered in video games. But some of them apparently will. The article provides data and draws conclusions that deserve our attention. I, therefore, prepared this summary.*
The Way of the Army
The author, David Grossman, is a military psychologist, who has studied the program the American army designed to help recruits overcome their strong reluctance to kill fellow human beings. For killing, he says, does not come naturally. It has to be taught, and that is what the army is attempting to do. Grossman draws parallels between the methods followed in this military desensitization program and those at work in the electronic entertainment industry.
That killing must indeed be taught became clear during World War Two. Grossman relates how a test showed that only fifteen to twenty percent of rifleman serving in that war declared that they had been able to fire at an exposed enemy soldier. It was this revelation that led to the institution of the training program in question. The measure was eminently successful: during the Korean War around fifty-five percent of the soldiers had overcome their inhibitions, a percentage that had risen to more than ninety percent in the Vietnam War.
Brutalization and Role Modelling
The methods used in the army training program, Grossman writes, are brutalization and desensitization, role modelling, classical conditioning, and operant conditioning.
The brutalization and desensitization begin as soon as the recruits enter the barracks. They are physically and verbally abused, their heads are shaved, they are herded together naked and then dressed alike so as to lose all individuality. This part of the program is intended to replace existing norms with a new set of values that “embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life.” In the end, the recruits are “desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in (their) brutal new world.” The drill sergeant, who “personifies violence and aggression,” supervises much of the program and at the same time serves as the recruits’ primary role model.
Having described this desensitization program, the author shows how strikingly similar it is to the approach followed in the entertainment industry. There is no need for me to describe the manner in which various types of modern music, TV shows, and video games contribute to the brutalization of children who view or participate in this type of entertainment. The facts are well-known; they have often been described in the media. Nor is it necessary to say much about the role models the entertainment industry offers to reinforce the new values. Rock stars who preach violence as a way of life, trigger-happy criminals, and various other “lawless sociopaths” become the children’s heroes. Role modelling, Grossman reminds us, also plays a part in media-inspired copycat behaviour that leads to cluster murders. The young killers who appear on television inspire other maladjusted youngsters to follow their example. “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’.” And so the cycle continues.
How to Kill and Like Doing it
The article describes classical conditioning, the third part of the program, as a mechanism whereby people are habituated by means of rewards to perform certain actions. Grossman goes for examples to Japanese practices during World War Two. The particular one he chooses is that of Chinese prisoners who were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands tied behind their back. A number of Japanese soldiers went into the ditch, each of them bayoneting his “own” prisoner to death. Having accomplished that feat, the killers were cheered by their comrades on the bank and treated to a fine meal and other rewards. Classical conditioning, in brief, was a mechanism the Japanese used to teach their soldiers to associate cruelty and killing with pleasure.
Grossman used the Japanese example because the American army considers this type of program out of bounds. But he shows that something close to the Japanese approach is at work in the entertainment industry. “Our children watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death,” he writes, “and they learn to associate it with their favorite soft drink and candy bar, or their girl friend’s perfume.” The effects are noticeable. When after the Jonesboro shootings a high school teacher told her students what had happened at the middle school (where two young boys killed four classmates and a teacher), these students laughed. And apparently that type of response is not at all uncommon. “A similar reaction happens all the time in movie theatres when there is bloody violence,” Grossman writes. “The young people laugh and cheer and keep right on eating popcorn and drinking pop.”
If classical conditioning teaches a person to like killing, operant conditioning, as Grossman describes it, is a mechanism teaching a person to do the killing. It’s a matter of stimulus and response: a certain stimulus is constantly followed by a certain response until that response becomes reflexive. Both soldiers and police officers undergo this type of training. “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.” The same type of reflex action is taught children at interactive point-and-shoot video games. The training these games provide also explains why children involved in the recent shootings were often amazingly accurate marksmen.
An “Immune Deficiency Syndrome”
Grossman believes that we are faced with a phenomenon that functions much like AIDS and that he calls AVIDS – Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome. “AIDS,” he writes, “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 that syndrome is passed on daily to the children of the nation, including, in all too many cases, the children of the church.
The editors of Christianity Today find Grossman’s message sufficiently unsettling to suggest that “parents, the church, scholars, and the government ... come together to study this question more intensely: Are we training our children to kill?”
Perhaps we should do the same. The situation in Canada, of course, is not as bad as the American one, but perhaps this is largely a result of the fact that there are not as many guns around here. The entertainment programs are the same. And in any case, quite apart from the killings, the brutalization and conditioning that the exposure to violence entails are bad enough in themselves.