Life Out of Balance

According to the model presented by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in On Killing, humans overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellows when authority demands it, the group absolves it, the killer is predisposed, the victim is demonized and/or at a physical distance and there is a perceived pay-off. Most, possibly all, of the violence that plagues modern society can be explained through the application of this model.

The recent events in Bosnia and Rwanda are simple and direct applications of the model. It is worth mentioning the role of the media--Serbian TV, Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda-- in expressing the wishes of authority, communicating group absolution, predisposing the killer, demonizing the "other", and communicating the benefits of murder. Absolute violence, again, is a function of civilization, vastly aided by modern tools.

Ironically, it is easy for us in our turn to demonize the Serbs and Hutus, regard them as the "other", capable of crimes unthinkable to us--exactly the way we think of the Nazis. We then end up in the same boat; it becomes easier to kill Serbs or Hutus if our government demands it, and we haven't learned anything about ourselves.

Can we use Grossman's model to explain the violence within our own societies? Grossman himself, though he doesn't spend much of his book discussing social causes of violence, notes the applicability of his model to gang warfare in America. Here again you have the strong authority figure demanding killing and group absolution for the act.

Gangs become strong in environments of poverty, lacking other sympathetic authority figures and where there is a shortage of community bonds and of self-respect. People turn to illegitimate organizations in the lack of any perceived benefit from legitimate ones. Gang membership serves the innate human need for social contact, may seem to protect the individual against endemic violence, and offers financial benefits not otherwise to be found in a desperately poor environment.

Geoffrey Canada, in his autobiographical Fist Stick Knife Gun, details circumstances in which essentially good children (all children are born essentially good) are socialized to violence in the ghetto as a means of defending themselves and their families and being able to hold their heads up on the street. He tells the poignant tale of an ongoing prisoners' dilemma in which ever-escalating acts of betrayal with ever more powerful tools of violence (switchblades thirty years ago, semi-automatic weapons today) are leading to the destruction of an entire generation of young black men. Drives which have taken place in New York City and elsewhere in which thousands of people turn in guns in exchange for vouchers to buy toys signal a fundamental truth: there are many violent people in our society who would like to live differently, if they thought they could. Canada, who today runs the Rheedlen Center, an organization combatting violence and promoting neighborhood bonds in Harlem, relates the story of moving to a new neighborhood. He couldn't leave his house for the first week or so because whenever he looked out the window, the local gang of pre-adolescent boys made threatening gestures. In order even to leave the house, he had to be willing to fight someone.

I have several times told the story of the friendly, respectable Texas lawyer I know whose proposed solution to homelessness was to dump all homeless people on a Pacific island and supply them with guns and drugs. This is not a fantasy; this is in fact what we have done to large stretches of urban America, where a lack of jobs, racist and hostile messages, and easy availability of guns and drugs create a Hobbesian state of violence unknown in nature. Only by blaming the victim, by refusing to take responsibility can we create the fiction that this violence is something the demonized "other" is doing to himself and has nothing to do with us. And because there is no way, having created a Hobbesian condition, we can tidily keep it within any borders, we see it spilling over into our own neighborhoods, as street gangs and drug operations invade rural America and "predators" from other areas come prowling our streets.

Think again about the life-affirming and death-oriented solutions to this problem. One is to solve the problem of violence at its roots--addressing poverty, promoting self-respect, restoring human bonds--while the other approach involves escalating the violence, arming ourselves to shoot the shooters. If this escalation within Geoffrey Canada's neighborhoods has served only to wipe out an entire generation, why do we think it will do anything else for us? Shooting the shooters only means that there will be more people out there shooting back; shooting the shooters also places us on the moral road to a new Holocaust, to the Hutu or Serbian or Pacific Island solution. The cure for violence can never be more violence--not now, when our tools have become so powerful.

Grossman draws an interesting parallel which sheds light on other violence in our society not attributable to poverty or racism. He observes that the images and interactions presented in the media and in video games are remarkably similar to the training that armies have used to overcome inhibitions to killing. During World War II, troops learned marksmanship by firing at paper targets, and were unprepared to fire at human beings. By the sixties, training involved firing at moving, human shaped targets, which fell down when hit. Video and computer games in which we fire at human figures and see them fall or even blow apart are even more effective in conditioning us to kill.

Grossman also reports a CIA initiative of the '70's--denied by the government--to condition assassins to kill by showing them violent movies. He believes, as do many commentators, that Hollywood movies glorify and advocate violence as the solution to most problems and are extremely effective in overcoming our inhibitions to kill. He traces a trajectory in movies from heroes who kill reluctantly to save lives, to heroes who kill for revenge, to heroes who kill to punish insults or slights, to heroes who kill innocent victims for the thrill and are not themselves punished. I have elsewhere discussed the semiotic significance of a type of movie I style the gun play.

Placing the media in the context of Grossman's model, movies and video games act in lieu of a strong authority figure in advocating killing; communicate the availability of group absolution for those who kill; precondition us to be willing to kill; establish a highly sadistic message that ethnic groups, nubile young women, or the man on the street are a demonized other available for murder; and offer the benefit of redressing minor insults or even of personal gratification in killing. Certainly this thesis is supported by movies like Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter goes free and is last seen about to revenge himself on his jailer), Natural Born Killers (the renegade couple retires peacefully after 50 sadistic killings and raises a family, justified by the murderousness of society) or the Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street series (the killer always returns to destroy more victims for your delectation).

Grossman notes the difference between Hollywood violence and military conditioning: the military teaches homicidal aggression in a context of total obedience to authority; Hollywood teaches the same thing in a context of rebellion against authority. Grossman doesn't make the point, but the military teaches killing in the pursuit of social goals, however misguided and immoral, while Hollywood promotes murder in order to sell tickets.

The U.S. government, and modern governments in general, are highly morally compromised and therefore not suited to the task of counteracting internal violence, should they choose to do so. Quite aside from the prevalence of the Hobbesian view in U.S. legislators beholden to the NRA, it is hard to conceive of the phrasing of an antiviolent message communicated by the U.S. government: "Kill only who we tell you to, and not each other?" Five decades of dirty CIA games, excuse-making for atrocities in Vietnam and elsewhere, and its support of foreign forces who torture, rape and murder, have made our government morally bankrupt and completely ineffective as a source of moral guidance to the nation.

Perhaps alone in the world, Costa Rica, which renounced having a military and which has never been invaded, has any claim to be heard!

Here is a grandiose but utterly serious conclusion: When our government renounces violence as a solution to human problems, when Hollywood stops peddling murder, and when we begin a serious attempt to cure the state of affairs in our poorest communities, we will have started the work. Until then, claiming that violence is natural, and that only escalation will cure it, simultaneously denies the real problem and sets us on the path to self-immolation.