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Lt. Col. David Grossman (USA Retired) is the director of the Killology Research Group. He also authored the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, and educates the public about this alarming phenomenon. Plugged In spoke with him in 1999 regarding his research and how it relates to contemporary youth culture. Lt. Col. Grossman's insights—articulated at a time when high school classrooms and cafeterias were becoming an increasingly dangerous place—are just as cogent today.

Do you believe our nation's conscience has changed over the years with regard to violent entertainment?
Think of the movies Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers. They were tremendous hits. Now consider what would have happened if those movies had been released in 1939, the same year Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz came out. Would American society have had anything to do with them at the time? Of course not. We as a nation had to be systematically desensitized for decades in order to reach our present state. In technical terms, that's exactly what's happened: systematic desensitization. And its not just in movies.

What other factors are contributing to this mindset?
In Paducah, Ky., a 14-year-old boy brought a .22 caliber pistol to school. He fired eight shots. For the sake of perspective, the FBI says that the average law enforcement officer hits less than one bullet in five in real-world engagement. This young man fired eight shots. He hit eight different students. Five of these were head shots and the other three were upper torso. And we know where he acquired this ability—from video games. He came from a very well-to-do family. He played point-and-shoot video games in his house. His parents had converted a two-car garage into a playroom with VCRs and video games. He had become a master game player. On that fateful morning, he acted out a set of conditioned responses. He walked in, planted his feet, posted the gun in a two-handed stance. A blank look came over his face. He opened fire. He never moved far to the left or right. He just fired one shot at everything that popped up on his screen. He was playing a video game. A person's normal response is to shoot at a target until it drops. But video games train you to fire one shot and then move on. And so he proceeded. Most video games give bonus points for head shots. This young man hit five out of eight in that region.

You've talked about the implications of motion picture violence and video game violence. Is music also a factor?
I'm a Christian. But Christian music didn't make me a Christian. Rather, once I became a Christian I sought out music that reinforced my values and worldview. Similarly, I'm a patriotic American. Patriotic music didn't turn me into a patriotic American. But once again, I sought out music that supported my values. When you have children who are listening to violent music, you're looking at a symptom—not the disease. And this must be taken seriously. They have been brainwashed into believing that the world is a horrific, brutal place. You need to prayerfully counsel and confront them. Keep in mind, they are under the age of accountability. That means they're accountable to you as parents. You have the right and the responsibility to tell them, "This is sick. I will not tolerate this. If you listen to violent music, that means your beliefs and values are violent, and that is sad. I will not within the power of the Holy Spirit, within the power of prayer, within the power of the authority in me as a parent, allow this to happen."

How do you reach this media-saturated generation effectively with this message?
One point I share with them involves the Japanese soldiers in World War II and how they were taught to associate human death and suffering with pleasure. These men were brainwashed. They witnessed countless atrocities against prisoners of war at the hands of fellow soldiers—and they laughed. They cheered. Why? In conjunction with these atrocities came pleasure and reward. Following the brutality, these soldiers were given the best meal they had in months and so-called "comfort girls." Of course, teens recognize how sick and despicable this bit of history is. But they're shocked when I explain that our present-day society is doing the very same thing. Teens watch this same sort of violence on television, in movies and on video game monitors—and they laugh, and they cheer, and they associate the experience with their favorite candy bar and soft drink. In other words, they are systematically desensitized to human death and suffering. They are taught to associate human death and suffering with pleasure.

What is a parent's role in all of this?
When I was a kid, my siblings and I bounced around in the back of the car. We never buckled up and we're all fine—so were millions of other kids who never buckled up in their cars. Does that mean that there's never any reason to wear a seatbelt? Of course not. My parents took a tragic risk. So, the goal becomes explaining that children's ingestion of unfiltered media is much like bouncing around in the back of a car without a seatbelt. As with automobile safety standards, many reputable groups like the American Medical Association have made definitive statements regarding the fact that much of the media is horrendously toxic and destructive. Parents must begin embracing their responsibilities within the realm of media. The number-one goal must be to protect your children when they are young.

Are there practical ways to teach teens the serious nature of violence?
As I've already mentioned, society teaches children to associate violence with pleasure. To laugh at human death and suffering is inexcusable. A friend of mine teaches history at a junior high school. In order to teach his students about the Civil War he uses the movie Gettysburg. In one scene, a cannon is fired at point blank range. It's devastating. His young class laughed. After this happened several times, my friend realized what had to be done. Prior to future screenings, he stood in front of his class and explained, "In the past my students have laughed at this. This is a sad, tragic scene of an event that actually happened to our ancestors, and I will not tolerate anybody laughing." Since he started prefacing the scene with those comments, no one has laughed, and sometimes they even cry. Why? He confronted the behavior. Parents must do this as well.

How can parents confront that kind of behavior from a biblical perspective?
When our children laugh at human death and suffering, express absolute moral indignation and outrage. Tell them this is not right. The Bible tells us that people who love the world do not have the love of the Father in them. If we love this world so much that we don't protect our children from it and confront them when they manifest the world in them, we need to reconsider our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. With this in mind, we should sit down with our teens and counsel them about violence. In 2 Timothy 2:22 we are told to flee from youthful lusts. Typically we associate lusts with sex, but there are also violent lusts. God loves each one of us. But we need to confess our sins in this area and allow God to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Ultimately, we must remain focused on the Truth.

Published August 1999