People and Violence, The Societal Ill of Mass Killing

In light of the elementary school shooting of the last week and the string of mass shootings that have unfurled this year I think it is worth stepping away from war ethics to examine violence within our society. As a preface, this post is not advocating gun control, or the lack thereof. That discussion is contentious, brutal, and I think less productive than a discussion about the root causes of violence in the US. I also recognize that the shooter in Connecticut was mentally unbalanced. I am not trying to address mental illness and violence here. I will, however, offer one comment on this topic. In China, where there is a sever lack of institutions to address mentally ill individuals, there have been instances in which severely schizophrenic individuals have attacked and killed children in rural provinces with whatever weapon is available to them. The proper diagnosis of, and care for, the severely mentally ill has the potential to reduce violence where this is the root problem.

This, however, cannot be used as the excuse for all the shootings this year. Nor can you blame firearms, though they certainly enable the violently inclined to increase their lethality. These types of shootings were not so frequent in the past, thought access to weapons of the type used in these attacks has not increased significantly. I would argue that these types of incidents should be the expected result of a society that increasingly glorifies violence and uses it as entertainment. The most popular movies, sports, and video games in America are those that exploit violence as entertainment. We are a society that is increasingly awash in blood lust. I find myself caught up in this tendency as well. I enjoy UFC, Modern Warfare, and Inglorious Bastards as much as the next American. However, I feel that as an adult, and as one who has been deployed in combat and knows what it feels like to aim a firearm at another human being with the intent to kill, my susceptibility to its desensitizing effects are tempered. Sadly, I am not the demographic that is the primary consumer of these products. Rather, an increasing number of Americans are raised in a stew of desensitizing, blood lust inducing media.

Lt. Col Grossman, Army psychologist and author of the seminal works, On Killing and On Combat, argues that desensitization is a key component of reducing an individuals innate resistance to killing. As such, it has become a key piece of military basic training and pre-combat conditioning for service members in an attempt to increase their lethality. Some of the same techniques are being used in the entertainment industry. Effectively, America is raising generations of conditioned killers.

The violence of some movies and media that have become an omnipresent part of American culture has been described by some as “violence as porn.” For some, the shoot ’em up video games and horror movies can become addicting. And like many addictions, it escalates. Shooting cyber soldiers and watching CG gore looses its attraction after a point. The natural progression is towards enacting fantasies.

Adding to the risk of the violence inured is the risk that the angst and despair of others is no longer tempered by their natural resistance to violence. After being broken down and desensitized, violence becomes a legitimate outlet for grievances. the result is angry individuals using the weapons at their disposal to ignorantly kill Sikhs mistaken for Muslims (not that it would have been better had it not been a mistake), killing innocents in a mall, executing elementary students, or killing dozens in a movie theater.

Yet we are shocked each time, horrified. We ask ourselves what could have caused it, we blame the weapons they use, as if the weapon were the cause rather than an enabler. These inexcusable, horrific acts should be a wake up call. It is time we reexamine ourselves and do some soul searching as a nation. We shouldn’t blame Hollywood, or video game producers, or Spike TV. Nor should we blame Colt, Barrett, or Kalashnikov. They are simply producers, fulfilling a demand. We are to blame, the consumers who revel in bloodshed. We are the demand, the producers simply a supply. It is up to us, America, to change our demands, to buy our sons baseball bats and bicycles instead of game consoles and shoot’em ups, to value plot over gore, to spend our evenings watching sporting events, and not gladiatorial spectacles. Gun manufacturers and Hollywood give us what we want. And what we have asked for is violence.