‘Killology’ vs. violence
On the morning of Dec. 14, as deranged gunman Adam Lanza was preparing to enter an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. and brutally end the lives of 20 children and six adults, Dave Grossman was a scant 50 miles away in Hartford, instructing a crowd of 200 Connecticut police officers on how to anticipate the next wave of violence in America.
“I said we’re going to see them attack our kindergarten classes, our little league games,” the retired Army lieutenant colonel said, sadness in his voice. “I was off by a notch. He came to a first grade class.”
Grossman is accustomed to feeling like a prophet in, as he says, “the saddest and scariest way.”
He first grappled with what he calls “killology” in 1995, publishing On Killing, a well-sourced historical study on the challenge of training American soldiers to shoot to kill. The book earned a coveted place on the Marine Corps commandant’s annual required reading list and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
It also became Grossman’s first foray into a larger discussion about a worldwide surge of violence that was cresting well before Columbine and the grim ubiquity of mass murders in schools. This trend, Grossman writes, can be understood the same way he explains the pattern that brought the firing rate for U.S. infantrymen from 15 percent to 20 percent in World War II up to 90 percent or better in Vietnam: operant conditioning, or desensitization to the act of taking a life.
With troops in the Vietnam era, this technique, popularized by B.F. Skinner’s experiments, was effected by making shooting targets more humanlike and drilling infantrymen with rhythmic shooting exercises until taking a kill shot became second nature.
Ultraviolence in entertainment
In modern culture, Grossman argued, the trend of displaying ultraviolence for entertainment—in movies, television shows, and video games—has had much the same effect, particularly with society’s youngest members.
The medical community would corroborate this observation in July 2000, when the leaders of the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry made a brief but potent joint statement for a Congressional health summit.
“At this time, well over 1,000 studies, including reports from the Surgeon General’s office, the National Institute of Mental Health, and numerous studies conducted by leading figures within our medical and public health organizations—our own members—point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children,” they wrote. “The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.”
The nearly two decades since Grossman’s book was published have appeared to prove his theories right in the most devastating ways. Grossman’s own hometown of Jonesboro, Ark., saw a teacher and four middle school children gunned down by two of their classmates in 1998. A year later, the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado would imprint itself upon the American consciousness forever.
While school shootings were not a new phenomenon in the 1990s or even the 20th century, the size of the problem has indisputably swelled.
As David Kopel wrote in the Wall Street Journal in December, there were 18 recorded instances of “random mass shootings” in the 1980s, 54 in the 1990s, and 87 in the 2000s.
And Grossman, who tracks these events, he followed “On Killing” with the 1999 publication of a more targeted work, “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill”, has noticed a pattern.
“The killers, they all had one thing in common: they dropped out of life, and they immersed themselves in the culture of violence,” he said.
Grossman scoffs at the idea that controlling distribution or ownership of guns will slow the disturbing and new trend of random violence, since guns have been in American households since the nation began. And he hesitates to push for any sort of media restriction that risks infringement on First Amendment rights.
An early edition of On Killing contained a paragraph—“a rhetorical concession,” Grossman said—acknowledging that today’s advanced technology might recommend itself to advanced control.
Grossman wrote: “In the realm of weapons technology that means controlling explosives, artillery, and machine guns, and it may mean that the time has come to consider controlling assault rifles or pistols. In the realm of media technology, that may mean that the time has come to consider controlling TV, movies, and video games.”
Better protection of youth
He has since removed the text. Instead, he said, he believes the secret to stemming the wave of violence is better protection for the youngest and most vulnerable members of society.
“No one should be talking book banning. The research doesn’t support that,” Grossman said. “What the research tells us is we’ve got to stop violent visual imagery inflicted upon children and we’ve got to treat it like automobiles, or firearms, or sex.”
All of those things—add tobacco, pornography, and alcohol to the list—have age restrictions intended to shield children from things they are not yet physically or mentally mature enough to consume safely, he explained.
The message hasn’t received the same sort of knee-jerk popularity that gun control has in the wake of recent tragedies, but Grossman said he is encouraged at small steps.
A program called Take the Challenge at the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District in Michigan has been promoting reduced exposure to media violence since 2003 and has recorded increased academic achievement, decreased obesity and weight gain, and a reduction in student aggression in its students through the program.
Grossman himself keeps a full schedule, traveling to give lectures aboard military bases, to law enforcement communities, and in schools about his findings regarding the swell of violence and its causes. Rarely, he grants a media interview.
If he is a prophet, though, his augury remains grim. He tells the police departments he addresses to anticipate the worst at any unprotected place: Little League games, kindergartens.
It’s a grim prognostication, but more believable with every new random act of violence.
“This generation is going to give us evil like nothing we’ve seen before, Grossman said. “Sandy Hook is just the beginning.”