I am from Jonesboro, Arkansas. I travel
the world training medical, law enforcement, and U.S. military personnel
about the realities of warfare. I try to make those who carry deadly force
keenly aware of the magnitude of killing. Too many law enforcement and
military personnel act like “cowboys,” never stopping to think about who they
are and what they are called to do. I hope I am able to give them a reality
So here I am, a world traveler and an
expert in the field of “killology,” and the (then) largest school massacre in
American history happens in my hometown of Jonesboro, Arkansas. That was the
March 24, 1999, steelyard shooting deaths of four girls and a teacher. Ten
others were injured, and two boys, ages 11 and 13, are in jail, charged with
To understand the why behind Jonesboro
and Springfield and Pearl and Paducah, and all the other outbreaks of this “virus
of violence,” we need to understand first the magnitude of the problem.
The per capita murder rate doubled in
this country between 1957 when the FBI started keeping track of the data—and
1992. A fuller picture of the problem, however, is indicated by the rate
people are attempting to kill one another—the aggravated assault rate. That
rate in America has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per
100,000 by the middle of this decade. As bad as this is, it would be much
worse were it not for two major factors.
First is the increase in the
imprisonment rate of violent offenders. The prison population in America
nearly quadrupled between 1975 and 2002. According to criminologist John J.
DiIulio, “dozens of credible empirical analyses . . . leave no doubt that the
increased use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes.” If it were not
for our tremendous imprisonment rate (the highest of any industrialized
nation), the aggravated assault rate and the murder rate would undoubtedly be
The second factor keeping the murder
rate from being any worse is medical technology. According to the U.S. Army
Medical Service Corps, a wound that would have killed nine out of ten
soldiers in World War II, nine out of ten could have survived in Vietnam.
Thus, by a very conservative estimate, if we had 1940-level medical
technology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is. The
murder rate has been held down by the development of sophisticated lifesaving
skills and techniques, such as helicopter medevacs, 911 operators, paramedics,
CPR, trauma centers, and medicines.
Today, both our assault rate and murder
rate are at phenomenally high levels. Both are increasing worldwide. In
Canada, according to their Center for Justice, per capita assaults increased
almost fivefold between 1964 and 2002, attempted murder increased nearly
sevenfold, and murders doubled. Similar trends can be seen in other countries
in the per capita violent crime rates reported to Interpol between 1977 and
2002. In Australia and New Zealand, the assault rate increased approximately
fourfold, and the murder rate nearly doubled in both nations. The assault
rate tripled in Sweden, and approximately doubled in Belgium, Denmark,
England-Wales, France, Hungary, Netherlands, and Scotland, while all these
nations had an associated (but smaller) increase in murder.
This virus of violence is occurring
worldwide. The explanation for it has to be some new factor that is occurring
in all of these countries. There are many factors involved, and none should
be discounted: for example, the prevalence of guns in our society. But
violence is rising in many nations with Draconian gun laws. And though we
should never downplay child abuse, poverty, or racism, there is only one new
variable present in each of these countries, bearing the exact same fruit:
media violence presented as entertainment for children.
Before retiring from the military, I
spent almost a quarter of a century as an army infantry officer and a
psychologist, learning and studying how to enable people to kill. Believe me,
we are very good at it. But it does not come naturally; you have to be taught
to kill. And just as the army is conditioning people to kill, we are
indiscriminately doing the same thing to our children, but without the
After the Jonesboro killings, the head
of the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Juvenile Violence came to
town and said that children don’t naturally kill. It is a learned skill. And they learn it from abuse and violence in
the home and, most pervasively, from violence as entertainment in television,
the movies, and interactive video games.
Killing requires training because there
is a built-in aversion to killing one’s own kind. I can best illustrate this
from drawing on my own military research into the act of killing.
We all know how hard it is to have a
discussion with a frightened or angry human being. Vasoconstriction, the
narrowing of the blood vessels, has literally closed down the forebrain—that
great gob of gray matter that makes you a human being and distinguishes you
from a dog. When those neurons close down, the midbrain takes over and your
thought processes and reflexes are indistinguishable from your dog’s. If you’ve
worked with animals, you have some understanding of what happens to
frightened human beings on the battlefield.
The battlefield and violent crime are in the realm of midbrain
Within the midbrain, there is a
powerful, God-given resistance to killing your own kind. Every species, with
a few exceptions, has a hardwired resistance to killing its own kind in
territorial and mating battles. When animals with antlers and horns fight one
another, they head butt in a harmless fashion. But when they fight any other species, they
go to the side to gut and gore. Piranhas will turn their fangs on anything,
but they fight one another with flicks of the tail. Rattlesnakes will bite
anything, but they wrestle one another. Almost every species has this
hardwired resistance to killing its own kind.
we human beings are overwhelmed with anger and fear, we slam head-on into
that midbrain resistance that generally prevents us from killing. Only
sociopaths—who by definition don’t have that resistance—lack this innate
violence immune system.
Throughout all human history, when
humans fight each other, there is a lot of posturing. Adversaries make loud
noises and puff themselves up, trying to daunt the enemy. There is a lot of
fleeing and submission. Ancient battles were nothing more than great shoving
matches. It was not until one side turned and ran that most of the killing
happened, and most of that was stabbing people in the back. All of the
ancient military historians report that the vast majority of killing happened
in pursuit when one side was fleeing.
more modern times, the average firing rate was incredibly low in Civil War
battles. British author Patty Griffith demonstrates in his book The Battle Tactics of the Civil War
that the killing potential of the average Civil War regiment was anywhere
from five hundred to a thousand men per minute. The actual killing rate was
only one or two men per minute per regiment.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 27,000 muskets picked up from the
dead and dying after the battle, 90 percent were loaded. This is an anomaly,
because it took 95 percent of their time to load muskets and only 5 percent
to fire. But even more amazingly, of the thousands of loaded muskets, over
half had multiple loads in the barrel—one with 23 loads in the barrel.
reality, the average man would load his musket and bring it to his shoulder,
but he could not bring himself to kill. He would be brave, he would stand shoulder
to shoulder, he would do what he was trained to do; but at the moment of
truth, he could not bring himself to pull the trigger. And so he lowered the
weapon and loaded it again. Of those who did fire, only a tiny percentage
fired to hit. The vast majority fired over the enemy’s head.
During World War II, U.S. Army Brig.
Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in
battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what
they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the
individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy
That is the reality of the battlefield.
Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men
are willing to die. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for their
nation; but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into
human nature; but when the military became aware of that, they systematically
went about the process of trying to fix this “problem.” From the military
perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent
literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the
soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over
The method in this madness: desensitization.
How the military increases the killing rate
of soldiers in combat is instructive, because our culture today is doing the
same thing to our children. The training methods militaries use are
brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role
modeling. I will explain each of these
in the military context and show how these same factors are contributing to
the phenomenal increase of violence in our culture.
Brutalization and desensitization are
what happen at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are
physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention
or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns
screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and
dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down
your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values that embrace
destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are
desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival
skill in your brutal new world.
Something very similar to this
desensitization toward violence is happening to our children through violence
in the media—but instead of 18-year-olds, it begins at the age of 18 months
when a child is first able to discern what is happening on television. At that age, a child can watch something
happening on television and mimic that action. But it isn’t until children
are six or seven years old that the part of the brain kicks in that lets them
understand where information comes from. Even though young children have some
understanding of what it means to pretend, they are developmentally unable to
distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality.
When young children see somebody shot,
stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as
though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or five
watch a “splatter” movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90
minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend
is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of
introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and
then butchering that friend in front of your child’s eyes. And this happens to our children hundreds
upon hundreds of times.
Sure, they are told: “Hey, it’s all for
fun. Look, this isn’t real, it’s just TV.” And they nod their little heads
and say okay. But they can’t tell the difference. Can you remember a point in
your life or in your children’s lives when dreams, reality, and television
were all jumbled together? That’s what it is like to be at that level of
psychological development. That’s what the media are doing to them.
of the American Medical Association published the definitive
epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. The research demonstrated what happened in
numerous nations after television made its appearance as compared to nations
and regions without TV. The two nations or regions being compared are
demographically and ethnically identical; only one variable is different: the
presence of television. In every nation, region, or city with television,
there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15
years there is a doubling of the murder rate.
Why 15 years? That is how long it takes
for the brutalization of a three-to five-year-old to reach the “prime crime
age.” That is how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you
brutalize and desensitize a three-year-old.
Today the data linking violence in the
media to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer and
tobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impact
of brutalization by the media. The Journal of the American Medical
Association concluded that “the introduction of television in the 1950’s
caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., long-term childhood
exposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one half of
the homicides committed in the United States, or approximately 10,000
homicides annually.” The article went
on to say that “. . . if, hypothetically, television technology had never
been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the
United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults”
(June 10, 1992).
Classical conditioning is like the
famous case of Pavlov’s dogs they teach in Psychology 101. The dogs learned
to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the
dogs could not hear the bell without salivating.
The Japanese were masters at using
classical conditioning with their soldiers. Early in World War II, Chinese
prisoners were placed in a ditch on their knees with their hands bound behind
them. And one by one, a select few Japanese soldiers would go into the ditch
and bayonet “their” prisoner to death. This is a horrific way to kill another
human being. Up on the bank, countless other young soldiers would cheer them
on in their violence. Comparatively few soldiers actually killed in these
situations, but by making the others watch and cheer, the Japanese were able
to use these kinds of atrocities to classically condition a very large
audience to associate pleasure with human death and suffering. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers who
had been spectators were treated to sake, the best meal they had had in
months, and to so-called comfort girls. The result? They learned to associate
committing violent acts with pleasure.
The Japanese found these kinds of
techniques to be extraordinarily effective at quickly enabling very large
numbers of soldiers to commit atrocities in the years to come. Operant conditioning (which we will look at
shortly) teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but
powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it.
This technique is so morally
reprehensible that there are very few examples of it in modern U.S. military
training, but there are some clear-cut examples of it being done by the media
to our children. What is happening to our children is the reverse of the aversion
therapy portrayed in the movie A
Clockwork Orange. In A Clockwork Orange, a brutal
sociopath, a mass murderer, is strapped to a chair and forced to watch
violent movies while he is injected with a drug that nauseates him. So he
sits and gags and retches as he watches the movies. After hundreds of
repetitions of this, he associates violence with nausea, and it limits his
ability to be violent.
We are doing the exact opposite: Our
children watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death, and they learn to
associate it with their favorite soft drink and candy bar, or their
After the Jonesboro shootings, one of
the high-school teachers told me how her students reacted when she told them
about the shootings at the middle school. “They laughed,” she told me with
A friend of mine, a retired army officer
who teaches at a nearby middle school, uses the movie Gettysburg to teach his
students about the Civil War. A scene in that movie very dramatically depicts
the tragedy of Pickett’s Charge. As the Confederate troops charge into the
Union lines, the cannons fire into their masses at point-blank range, and
there is nothing but a red mist that comes up from the smoke and flames. He
told me that when he first showed this heart-wrenching, tragic scene to his
students, they laughed.
A similar reaction happens all the time
in movie theaters when there is bloody violence. The young people laugh and
cheer and keep right on eating popcorn and drinking pop. We have raised a
generation of barbarians who have learned to associate violence with
pleasure, like the Romans cheering and snacking as the Christians were
slaughtered in the Colosseum.
The result is a phenomenon that
functions much like AIDS, which I call AVIDS—Acquired Violence Immune
Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS 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 once you are at close range with another human
being, and it’s time for you to pull that trigger, Acquired Violence Immune
Deficiency Syndrome can destroy your midbrain resistance.
The third method the military uses is
operant conditioning, a very powerful procedure of stimulus-response,
stimulus-response. A benign example
is the use of flight simulators to train pilots. An airline pilot in training
sits in front of a flight simulator for endless hours; when a particular
warning light goes on, he is taught to react in a certain way. When another
warning light goes on, a different reaction is required. Stimulus-response,
stimulus-response, stimulus-response. One day the pilot is actually flying a
jumbo jet; the plane is going down, and 300 people are screaming behind him.
He is wetting his seat cushion, and he is scared out of his wits; but he does
the right thing. Why? Because he has been conditioned to respond reflexively
to this particular crisis.
When people are frightened or angry,
they will do what they have been conditioned to do. In fire drills, children
learn to file out of the school in orderly fashion. One day there is a real
fire, and they are frightened out of their wits; but they do exactly what
they have been conditioned to do, and it saves their lives.
The military and law enforcement
community have made killing a conditioned response. This has substantially
raised the firing rate on the modern battlefield. Whereas infantry training
in World War II used bull’s-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire at
realistic, man-shaped silhouettes that pop into their field of view. That is
the stimulus. The trainees have only a
split second to engage the target. The conditioned response is to shoot the
target, and then it drops. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response,
stimulus-response—soldiers or police officers experience hundreds of
repetitions. 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
and shoot to kill. We know that 75
to 80 percent of the shooting on the modern battlefield is the result of this
kind of stimulus-response training.
Now, if you’re a little troubled by
that, how much more should we be troubled by the fact that every time a child
plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the exact
same conditioned reflex and motor skills?
I was an expert witness in a murder case
in South Carolina offering mitigation for a kid who was facing the death
penalty. I tried to explain to the jury that interactive video games had
conditioned him to shoot a gun to kill. He had spent hundreds of dollars on
video games learning to point and shoot, point and shoot. One day he and his
buddy decided it would be fun to rob the local convenience store. They walked
in, and he pointed a snub-nosed .38 pistol at the clerk’s head. The clerk
turned to look at him, and the defendant shot reflexively from about six
feet. The bullet hit the clerk right between the eyes—which is a pretty
remarkable shot with that weapon at that range—and killed this father of two.
Afterward, we asked the boy what happened and why he did it. It clearly was
not part of the plan to kill the guy—it was being videotaped from six different
directions. He said, “I don’t know. It was a mistake. It wasn’t supposed to
In the military and law-enforcement
worlds, the right option is often not to shoot. But you never, never put your quarter in
that video machine with the intention of not shooting. There is always some
stimulus that sets you off. And when he was excited, and his heart rate went
up, and vasoconstriction closed his forebrain down, this young man did
exactly what he was conditioned to do: he reflexively pulled the trigger,
shooting accurately just like all those times he played video games.
This process is extraordinarily powerful
and frightening. The result is ever more “homemade” pseudo-sociopaths who
kill reflexively and show no remorse. Our children are learning to kill and
learning to like it, and then we have the audacity to say, “Oh my goodness,
One of the boys involved in the
Jonesboro shootings (and they are just boys) had a fair amount of experience
shooting real guns. The other one, to the best of our knowledge, had almost
no experience shooting. Between them, those two boys fired 27 shots from a
range of over 100 yards, and they hit 15 people. That’s pretty remarkable shooting. We run
into these situations often—kids who have never picked up a gun in their
lives pick up a real gun and are incredibly accurate. Why? Video Games.