In a crowded school foyer, a teenage boy plants his feet shoulder width apart, and raises his gun to eye level. His sight is set straight ahead, on any target that pops up in front of him. In a panic, the children scatter for cover. With greater accuracy and precision than a trained professional, pivoting only a few inches to the left or right, the boy fires eight shots and hits eight children fatally, in either the chest or head. Is this scenario the tragedy of Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, or merely another level in the video game "Doom"? David Grossman says they are connected.
At a seminar held and aired by the Canaduan Public Affairs Channel last fall, Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) David Grossman explained there is an indisputable link between the violence kids are exposed to in the media and the havoc they wreak. Grossman is the director of a scientific research group he has developed to back up his argument called the Killology Research Group (KRG). Killology, a term coined by Grossman in 1998, is the scholarly study of killing. It is Grossman's response to the outrageous acts of teenage violence in such places as Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Spring-field, Oregon, in 1998, or Littleton, Colorado, and Taber, Alberta, last year.
For 23 years, as a psychology professor at West Point Academy and a U.S. Army infantry officer, it was Grossman's job to teach soldiers how to kill. One month after his retirement in 1998, Grossman's hometown of Jonesboro was the scene of the largest incident of teenage violence in North America. Two boys at Westside Middle School pulled a fire alarm and shot people as they ran outside to safety-five dead, 11 wounded. For Grossman, that was simply too close to home."Virus of Violence"
The KRG, the consulting practice of psychologists and human behavior specialists, has found in the virus of violence that has exploded among the youth around the world in the last 15 years there is one common ingredient: the media. The violence leading the evening news, in prime time programming, in motion pictures, and in video games and simulators is conditioning our children to kill without acknowledging the action itself or its consequences. And, like Pavlov's dog, the children are associating the act of killing with pleasures such as popcorn and candy at the movies, or instant celebrity if they headline the six o'clock news, creating role models and perpetuating copycat artists. The video games reward acts of violence with larger, more destructive weapons and the honor of higher scores. The result is a phenomenon known at KRG as "AVIDS," Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
The boy in Paducah said, although he didn't know why he opened fire on a quiet prayer group, he was inspired by a scene of similar school violence in the movie "The Basketball Diaries." The video game "Doom," by id Software, has been linked to both Paducah and Jonesboro incidents. The violence in Taber, Alberta, was a copycat of Columbine High School. And another boy in Littleton, having heard on the news and the internet about a bomb in the cafeteria that did not detonate because of faulty construction, threatened to finish the job. He could do it better and beat "the game.""Virtual Killing"
Grossman says there are no such things as natural born killers. On the contrary, people have a natural psychological resistance to killing. After World War Two, the U.S. Army found there was only a 15 to 20% firing rate among their soldiers, which Grossman says is like having a 15 to 20% literacy rate among librarians. The army recognized this inefficiency and fixed the problem by increasing the realism and vividness of their training, replacing bulls-eyes with moving man-shaped silhouettes, video simulations, and wide screen television projections, to create an environment that would demand the immediate response to kill or be killed. The safeguard in the army was the authoritative discipline enforced by officers. The same simulations are used in television and video games to impress the youthful audience, but without the same safeguard. In fact, some software on the market enables children to manipulate the scenes in a game to simulate their own environments by scanning in pictures of their school hallways, and morphing the faces of teachers and other students onto the bodies of the targets, making the game more real. Some advertisements for these kinds of software programs even promise "guilt-free" killing."Electronic Nicotine"
Children as old as six are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, says Grossman. What a six- year-old sees on television is as real as what goes on in his own living room. In North America, the average child watches 27 hours of television a week. It is increasingly becoming baby-sitter, second parent, and even teacher. In a controlled experiment published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) where one of two identical populations was exposed to television, scientists found that the crime rate of the population with television doubled in 15 years. It was the two, three, and four-year-old children who grew up to be violent teenagers that changed the statistics. The JAMA paper also reports that long-term childhood exposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one-half of the homicides in the United States annually, that is about 10, 000. The United States Surgeon General Report of 1972, the same report that suggested the addictive nature and harms of smoking, concluded that violence in the media contributed directly to teenage violence. More recently, media violence has been compared to electronic nicotine."Safeguards"
Grossman maintains that most children and school boards are addressing the problem. Students are reporting to the appropriate authorities incidents of guns in school and violence on campuses. Increased visibility of police officers at schools and accessibility to counselors are also great deterrents. But the popular "just turn it off" campaign that Big Media push in their defence works only if the television is turned off, and only inside your own family's living room, says Grossman. You can't trust that your neighbors are doing the same for their children.
Grossman believes that legislation and litigation will finally make Big Media accountable. The major television networks and production companies should be made responsible for the material they produce, airing public service announcements about the dangers of their product. Parents should allow their children to view only age-appropriate material, and join to help prosecute software and production companies who design violent media with the intent of attracting youth. High-profile prosecution lawyer Jack Thompson alleges that in the case of "The Basketball Diaries," the scene that inspired the boy in Paducah was fabricated. It was not in the original script nor in the true story on which the movie was based. It was created solely with the intent to attract the younger audience, because producers knew the kids would like it.
Strictly enforcing the rating system for television programming and movies, and implementing some form of gun control are also necessary. But, to avoid infringing on civil liberties, Grossman mainly advocates censure, and accountability, not censorship.
In response to a network executive who admitted their program "NYPD Blue" was full of mature content and violence, but suggested that it isn't harmful to children because it airs only once a week, Grossman countered it has the same effect as someone beating his wife in front of the children only once a week.
Grossman is lending his expertise in the field of Killology to Jack Thompson and his team of lawyers in a developing lawsuit against media production companies Time Warner and id Software.
Elke Semerad is a journalist and contributing editor at Peace Magazine.