the Killer Mentality
Ed Brenegar, Columnist Asheville Citizen-Times
Do you ever wonder about how certain people end up the way
they do? How does a person like Bill Clinton rise up out
of abject poverty to become President of the United States,
and a kid who may have grown-up next door to him end up
in jail or dead from a gunshot wound?
is a question that psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers
have researched and debated for generations. It is the old
nature or nurture question. My own perspective is that both
play an important role in the development of a person.
It is this question that I kept thinking about when the
four boys were arrested for shooting into the Erwin High
School gymnasium. Is there some natural deficiency that
made these boys more susceptible to violence than say a
thousand other boys their age? Or is there something in
their background which has encouraged violence as an acceptable
form of self-expression?
David Grossman, Lt. Col., U.S. Army (retired), who is an
expert on the psychology of killing, attributes the "virus
of violence" to the nurture side of my question. Grossman,
director of the Warrior Science Group focuses on media
violence as the tutor of young boys, conditioning them to
kill in much the same way the military trains combatants.
He asserts that the same desensitization that soldiers receive
to prepare them to kill the enemy in combat is what children
are being trained to do through video game violence and
the countless number of murders and acts of aggression committed
on television each day.
When I first heard this, I responded like you may be now,
thinking that he is just some anti-television reactionary.
But the evidence he presents convinces me he is on to something
significantly insightful. Without going into detail, let
me describe his point this way.
Every one of us learns by following role models and the
repetition of skills. We learn to talk and to read by listening
to others and trying ourselves. Eventually thinking in a
language becomes second nature, automatic, a reflexive skill.
Reading is difficult to learn, but it can be by diligent
practice. We learn by example and repetition. Scientist
and philosopher Michael Polanyi characterizes it this way:
"To learn by example...You follow your master because you
trust his manner of doing things. By watching the master
and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example,
the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art..."
In other words, our kids are being tutored in the tradition
of violence and killing through the television shows they
watch and the video games they play. I'm not anti-television.
But it seems that as a society we are rather cavalier in
thinking our voyeurism into the world of violence carries
with it no consequences.
The American Medical Association reports that within fifteen
years after the introduction of television, homicides, rapes,
and assaults doubled in the United States. Of course, there
are other contributing factors, but the question for me
remains. Either the young boys who are committing these
acts are "natural born killers" or they are being tutored
to be so. If it is the latter, then who is doing this? Where
are they learning to shoot people as well as an Army marksman?
At home? ... at school? ... at church?
Grossman in describing the Jonesboro, Arkansas, middle school
shooting explained that one child was experienced in the
use of guns and the other was not.
them, those two boys fired 27 shots from a range of over
100 yards, and they hit 15 people. That's pretty remarkable
The tragedy of this conditioning of young boys to kill is
that they have been tutored to believe that the person they
shoot will not be hurt. In the words of one teenage boy
who killed a convenience store clerk, when asked why he
did it, "I don't know. It was a mistake. It wasn't supposed
Yes, that's true. But it will happen again. It will because
we are not yet ready to face the truth that violence is
an art which is learned by the repetition of skills and
the nurturing of role models.
2000: Asheville Citizen-Times