Q&A – Training Kids to Kill

Question: I believe you said on your radio program one time that we are actually training children to kill. What did you mean by that?

Answer: That is the thesis of David Grossman, who, along with Governor Mike Huckaby of Arkansas, wrote On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Professor Grossman was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for exposing visual violence, which he called "[the most] toxic, addictive and destructive substance." When he was asked to testify before a U.S. senatorial committee investigating youth violence, he explained in chilling detail what we are facing as a nation. Having spent twenty-four years in the air force, he is an authority on what is known as "killology." That term refers to "the study of killing," focusing on the training procedures used by the military to prepare men for the most violent combat assignments. Grossman's shocking conclusion is that the same methods and experiences used for this purpose are being employed to indoctrinate children. In short, children are being taught to kill without remorse.

Those techniques, which involve overexposure to disturbing behavior, have been understood for decades. They are very effective. It is an established fact that the human mind will accept even the most horrible and repugnant experiences if given time to adjust and if accompanied by a rationale that disarms the defenses. The best (or worst) example of this process was seen in the Nazi killing squads, called Einsatzgruppen, which moved across Eastern Europe during World War II. About four of these small groups of twelve to twenty men systematically murdered more than 1.4 million people in cold blood, sparing neither women, children, nor babies. On numerous occasions, they killed as many as fifty thousand Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and political prisoners in a single day. After the war, social scientists studying the murderous behavior of the participants assumed that they must have been deranged or else they wouldn't have been able to endure such horror day after day. Upon investigation, however, it was learned that they were primarily normal human beings—former businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and shopkeepers—who believed in the Nazi cause and quickly became immune to wanton murder. They evolved into "monsters" who actually enjoyed watching innocent people beg vainly for mercy. What happened is that overexposure to brutality had hardened the killers to the suffering of innocent people and even the cries of little children. The mental process by which human beings learn to accept what they have previously found repugnant is known as desensitization.

Again, overexposure is the mechanism by which this surprising accommodation is achieved. Nazi recruits were required to perform disturbing tasks repeatedly and systematically until they were no longer shocked or revolted by them. They gave these trainees beautiful German shepherd puppies as their own and allowed them to become attached emotionally. Then they forced the men to break the necks of the puppies with their bare hands. This was done to make them "tough." What the Nazi leaders were doing was desensitizing the recruits to cruelty. It is a short distance emotionally from killing cuddly dogs to murdering defenseless human beings.

This desensitization procedure is used in far more productive ways today by the airline industry. It is the mechanism by which pilots are trained and tested. The fliers are placed in stationary devices known as simulators, which create virtual emergency situations, such as engine failure or landing-gear problems. The purpose is to develop skills to be used in the event of a real crisis but also to condition the pilots to stay calm during catastrophic circumstances. Later, when they have been through every possible emergency in training, they can presumably handle life-and-death situations without panicking. It works. Medical students are also desensitized to handle gory things in the emergency room or in surgery that were shocking to them in the beginning. Most of us have this capacity to adjust to disturbing experiences.

That, in effect, is what we are doing to millions of viewers—especially our children—by exposing them to rape and murder incessantly on television and in the movies. This is precisely what was found in a twenty-two-year investigation conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago. According to psychologist Leonard Eron, 875 subjects from a semirural New York county were accepted for study when they were eight years old. By the time they were thirty, those who had watched the most television violence had been convicted of a significantly larger number of serious crimes.

Eron, who heads the American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence and Youth, concluded, "Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socioeconomic levels and all levels of intelligence, and the effect is not limited to children who are already disposed to being aggressive and is not restricted to this country."

Consider now the violence to which today's children are exposed in everyday life, such as the video games now available. Mortal Kombat is a prime example. Very young children are learning not only how to kill but also how to remain unaffected when heads are blown off and blood is spattered everywhere. With a little practice, they learn to adjust to death and misery. Professor Grossman said it is inevitable that the desensitization our kids are experiencing can be directly transferred to school campuses.

Referring again to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the killers at Columbine High School, their favorite movie was Basketball Diaries, which depicted a scene very much like the massacre they would later perpetrate. They were also heavily influenced by the goth scene, which teaches death, violence, and sexual perversion. Given that "training," it should not be surprising that the young killers cheered, jeered, and even seemed to be having a "great time" while gunning down their schoolmates. How can any rational person deny this link between virtual violence and violence on the streets?

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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