?On Killing? -- A Talk with Col. Dave Grossman One Year after Columbine

On the anniversary of the Littleton tragedy, I am reminded of the terrible scenes I witnessed in and around Columbine High School, and am further reminded that we still need to redeem that horrible day. We need to learn the lessons of Littleton, and thus give some meaning to the deaths of the Columbine martyrs. In so doing we will also give direction to ourselves and our children. The following interview is part of our attempt to do just that. Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman (U.S.A. ret’d) is a former Army Ranger and West Point instructor. He is also an outspoken Christian. He is well- known in the law enforcement community for his pioneering research and writing on violence and killing. He has spoken to officers around the country on these subjects. His research on the effect of media violence in society is especially appropriate for us to consider as we learn from Littleton. In our interview he comments on this topic, and also makes some valuable observations about the role of parents in preventing violence. I spoke with Col. Grossman on March 29. Here are some edited excerpts from our taped interview:(Note: TRC= The Renewed Centurion; CG=Colonel Grossman)TRC: We are talking about [Col. Grossman’s] book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.” Dave, in your book on killing, you note the increase of violence in our country. What key factors have contributed to this increase?CG: Steve, in order to think about violence, you’ve got to realize there’s a host of factors involved. Think about heart disease. What causes heart disease? Well, you’ve got obesity, you’ve got high cholesterol diets, you’ve got stress, and lack of exercise...genetics. Take all the existing factors and add tobacco to those existing factors, and what happens? You get an explosion of heart disease. In the same way, ask yourself what causes violent crime. Well, child abuse... poverty... gangs... drugs.... availability of weapons. These are factors. Take the existing factors and add media violence to them and you get an explosion of violent crime around the world. It is not just in America. In Canada, we’ve seen a five-fold increase in violent crime since 1964. In the last fifteen years, per capita violent crime went up five-fold in Norway and Greece...four-fold in Australia and New Zealand, tripled in Sweden, doubled in seven other European nations. The murder rate in those same fifteen years doubled in India and Brazil, and Mexico has seen an explosion of violent crime. In the meanwhile, in Japan, a homogeneous society with absolutely intact family structure, universal employment, draconian gun laws, and an island nation...Japan, in 1997 alone, saw a 30% increase in juvenile violent crime. Now the new factor...the new variable added to all of those ingredients is media violence, and we know it. The Surgeon General, the AMA, the APA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institute of Mental Health, the United Nations, with a major Unesco study, have all made definitive statements. As far as the AMA and the American Academy of Pediatrics are concerned, the people who try to claim that media violence isn’t causing violence in our society are like the people that try to claim that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer or the Holocaust never happened. This is just established. The American Psychological Association said “the scientific debate is over.” So, we’ve got this nailed down, and we know it’s a factor, but it is not the only factor. It doesn’t mean that we don’t stop working on all of the other factors. Let me give you two quotes here...the first quote is from the American Academy of Pediatrics - and when it comes to your kids, the real media critics are not Siskel and Ebert. They are the American Academy of Pediatrics. And what they said, in 1995, was “Of all the causes of violent crime in America, media violence is the single most remediable factor.” Meanwhile, Ted Turner said “Television violence is the single most significant factor contributing to violence in America.” CBS President Leslie Moonves was asked if he thought the media had anything to do with the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado. His answer was “Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with it is an idiot.”All right, so we understand that we are living in extraordinarily violent times. Since 1957, per capita aggravated assault rate, the rate at which Americans are trying to kill one another off, has gone up almost seven-fold. And the new factor, the new variable is the media violence - the violent video games, the television and the movies.TRC: In addition to the media factor, have you discovered some common contributing factors in school shootings, like the one at Columbine High School?CG: Steve, I was a co-speaker with the head of the Center for School Safety, and with the head APA’s Committee on Juvenile Violence. I have spoken with the world’s leading experts and presented the plenary speaker to the American Medical Association’s annual convention and on and on. There are several factors that all the kids have in common. The most important factor...it was best stated in Rolling Stone magazine. In their article on the Springfield, Oregon shooting, they stated that the one factor that all these killers had in common was an infatuation and a saturation with media violence...the violent video games in particular...the violent movies...the violent television...is a key factor. Now the problem with that predictor is that about 50% of all the kids in America meet that standard. And trying to predict which one of the kids that we infect with this “virus” is going to turn into the killer is like trying to predict which one of the kids who gets the flu this year, out of millions of kids, is going to be killed by it. But we know it’s going to happen to some of them. Another key factor that all the kids had in common was this: about 90% of the school shooters have previously brought a gun to school. Now, that’s the only factor that is really a good solid predictor that doesn’t meet large numbers of other individuals. Everybody wants the predictor...they want the great ingredient, but I’ll tell you this… previously-brought-a-gun-to-school is one of the things to home in on. And what this means is we have a powerful responsibility to prevent the kids from bringing a gun to school. One of the most useful dynamics is school uniforms. When the kid wears the baggy pants, and he’s got the T-shirt pulled out, it’s so easy to hide a gun. We’re doing steps. We’ve got random bus searches. We’ve got random locker searches, so on and so forth. I don’t know if that’s the direction you want to go in, Steve, and you can leave that second half out, but for honesty’s sake, those are the two variables that these kids have got in common. And of course, the Littleton shooters did not do that. They had not previously brought a gun to school, to our knowledge.TRC: Have you identified any family factors?CG: The families are so incredibly diverse. This six-year old school killer in Flint, Michigan came from the most horrendous possible family environment. Whereas one of the shooters here in Jonesboro, Arkansas came from a wonderful environment. The other was from a family where his mother had divorced but remarried and had a very good family. TRC: Cassie Bernall’s mother wrote a book about her daughter, and in it includes a letter of apology written by Dylan Klebold’s parents. In that, they said they had no idea that Dylan was headed that direction. To me, that is an incredible statement. I’m wondering if this sort of parental blindness, or absenteeism, is a contributing factor.CG: Yeah, that is a factor. The problem is, once again, so many kids in our society fit that definition. The parents, and the parent’s negligence, is a key factor in this dynamic. And yet, it just becomes a little more complex than that. One of the problems is the parents. The other problem is the message that society is sending to the parents. And one of the messages that parents are getting from society is that your child has a right to privacy...and that you shouldn’t intrude in your child’s life...and you should give them their space. The reality is that a child does not have a right to privacy. You, as a parent, have not just the right, but the responsibility to know what’s going on in the kid’s life. The parenting kit for the 21st century is a crowbar, a flashlight, and a hammer. Use the crowbar to pry into anything that is going on in your child’s life, in their room, wherever they’re at. You use the flashlight to see what’s in there, and you use the hammer to destroy any video tapes, any CD’s, any music, any video games that are inappropriate for their age.TRC: Let me frame it this way, then. If, in each one of these school shooter’s situations, if there would have been a parent...a responsible parent there with a hammer, a crowbar, and a flashlight...would these kids have acted out like that, or would they have been prevented?CG: The ones that I know a lot about, gosh that’s a hard one. You know, it...TRC: Well, let me frame it this way then. Did you see in any one of those cases where a parent, or the parents, were really proactive with the hammer, the crowbar, and the flashlight?CG: A lot of these parents were trying to be...you know the parents in the Springfield, Oregon shooters were trying hard to work with their kid, find something to do with their kid. They were two teachers...they tried to take their kid shooting. One of their great mistakes was they bought the kid a gun, which the kid used to kill the parents. The problem is a lot of parents buy their kids guns, and it’s a positive thing if we do it under the right thing. The two Jonesboro shooters. They used an acetylene torch and a cold chisel to try to break into their dad’s gun safe. When that failed, they stole a car. Now they’re eleven and thirteen years old. They stole a car and drove it across town. They broke into a law enforcement officer’s basement to get the guns they used in that crime. There was no real warning, other than if you’d looked very carefully into some of their writings. This is just a hard area, and it comes back around to an infection that some of these kids get at a young age. If you want to talk about a proactive parent, I tell you one of the key factors involves keeping the TV turned off for the first six or seven years of their life, and keeping them away from instances in which they derive pleasure from human death and suffering. And understanding the fact that when your child is playing video games rated M, which means no child under seventeen should play this game, that you as a parent need to intercede. When your child is watching R-rated movies, you as a parent must intercede. TRC: In these families, did they intercede in those ways?CG: No, absolutely not. And that brings us back around to this infatuation with media violence.TRC: Okay, so let me get this straight. In these cases, there was not that enforcement of...that putting in place of boundaries on media violence?CG: Absolutely...absolutely.TRC: So that is a common denominator. And so at least on that level, the parental authority was, in effect, absent.CG: Absolutely. And I mean all of these kids were allowed to play the most horrendous games. Often, the parents shared in them with them...tried to use violence as their common medium. Parents permitted the kids to see the most horrendous movies. They put almost no bounds on what the kids did over the internet...or what the kids did on television. And the parents bought into this whole concept that your child has a right to have access to all of these... to this medium. You understand, you need three things to kill. You need a weapon, the skill, and the will to kill. And the parents were actively permitting the children to get the skill and the will to kill, and then, the weapon was just waiting to happen.TRC: Yeah, ‘cause they’re available. One way or another.CG: You bet. And you know, kids can get anything. Kids can get alcohol, pornography...tobacco if they want it bad enough. And the kids have gone to extraordinary measures to get the guns in most of these killings.TRC: Okay. In my experience, when I was a law enforcement officer, there was often this feeling of frustration because there would be a report that was turned in about a juvenile who was out of control, and yet didn’t meet the definition of a criminal violator. Yet somebody was turning to law enforcement hoping that we could do something, and the frustration came in because legally we couldn’t. Yet we could see the handwriting on the wall. In that area, in my view, the key people that reside in that gray area where law enforcement can’t do anything or a teacher can’t do anything - that’s the role of the parent. And it seems to me that, yes, media violence is the key contributing factor... the one variable that’s in play nowadays, but that even with that, we can combat that if the parents are responsible.CG: You bet. Now understand that the average child in American spends more time in front of the tube than any other single act. And so it is the single, single most influential factor in their lives. Now the parents interceding in all of these...you know the cops knowing about these things, what’s happening, Steve, is the school is more and more taking responsibility. And, for every one of these kids that goes off and does something, one of these horrendous events, there are literally ten thousand kids in America who don’t kill but meet all the definitions. Now, one of the things we know is this. There has never been one of these school shootings in one of the alternative schools. Now, the alternative schools, you get your kids that are problem children, they’re consistently a problem, and then finally something happens...behavior so bad you snatch them out of their existing school, and you put them in this alternative school. We don’t even get the copycat bomb scares in the alternative schools.TRC: Interesting.CG: These are your worst kids. You’ve taken all your bad eggs and thrown them in one basket. And guess what...well, there’s a couple of variables as to why that happens. Number one, there’s almost always a school resource officer there. And these killings do not happen with a school resource officer present. Littleton is the only one of the school shootings that ever occurred, and I’ve got a list two pages long, in which there was an armed school resource officer present, and he was kind of halfway absent during that one. These kids are not looking for gun fights. They’re looking for...I mean, if they wanted a gun fight, they’d go to the police station. These kids are looking for innocent people to gun down, to rack up the new high score on the national video game. And so, what we’re doing is the cops are doing the right thing by having more cops in the schools. The school district is doing the right thing by snatching these kids out and putting them in the alternative schools. And the alternative schools...we’ve got more cops, we’ve got more flexible schedule. But most of all what we’ve done is given that kid a major reality check, and yanked them out of their little fantasy bubble and let them know they can’t continue to operate in the way they are and still have the life they have. And so a lot of people are working very hard on doing this, and yet it comes back around to the parent. And yet, the parent has been almost emasculated in our society, by being told that the parent has no right.TRC: But, now let me ask you this question: Is that a self-perpetuated emasculation? Self perpetuated by the parent who buys into the philosophy...CG: You bet.TRC: I’m wondering if parents put down their foot and say “No, I’m not buying into the culture,” it seems to me that that is the biggest single variable in whether or not a child is going to do this or not.CG: Look, the single greatest variable is this whole media culture, and the child spending more time in front of the tube than any other single act. If the parent stands up and says “No, I will not permit you to partake of that culture,” then you’ve just eliminated the single biggest variable. If the biggest variable in heart disease is smoking, and the parent says, “No, I will not permit you to smoke...”TRC: What you’ve just said is that the parent is the single biggest variable - if they’ll step up to the plate.CG: You got it.TRC: It seems to me that in each one of these cases, you don’t have that with these [perpetrators].CG: You see, a lot of these parents thought they did. And the thing is, the parents said “Well, we’re going to be a part of our kids’ lives...” You know, many of these parents bought them the video games, bought them the movies, shared the movies, shared the video games with them. And that’s like thinking, “If I share the tobacco with my child, he won’t get cancer.”TRC: Well, see this is it. This goes to my thought that it seems like these parents, at some level, are out to lunch. They don’t really understand. They’re so awash in the culture of the day that they think it is “normal.” They’re just caught up...they’re drifting downstream and the kids wind up paying the price. And so then, they’re setting their kids up to be a victim of that big variable you’re talking about with media violence. And then, at the end of the day, the parents will say, “Well, I did my best.” Well, they did their best in terms of intent maybe, but they’re totally checked out in terms of actually processing what’s happening.CG: Now understand that everything you say is correct. The problem is that the parents themselves are a product of the culture. And unless you divorce yourself from that culture, and step out of that culture and say, “No”, you as a parent are hard pressed....and what institution is there that’s going to permit you to do that other than the church? You know that really is the key. I’m co-authoring a follow-on book down the road called “Retro Culture.” This is just that. Retro Culture. Move the culture backward. You as an individual do not have to partake of this culture. Choose the culture YOU want and do what YOU want. And that becomes the goal. And certainly the church becomes one the bedrocks...the bastions...you know, to do that. “The old that is strong does not wither and the deep roots are not touched by the frost.”TRC: A lot of people will claim they are Christians, or they’ll say, “Well, I go to church.” At what point does ”being a Christian” make a difference [in the things we’re talking about]?CG: At the point at which your life is actually changed. At the point when you...you know, II John says “He that loves the world hath not the love of the Father in him.” If we love that world so much we can’t protect our own children from it, then you know, we have to think very carefully about our relationship with our Lord and Master. You know, Psalm 11 verse 5 says “God searches the hearts of the righteous and the wicked. And him that loveth violence, his soul hateth.” Where your actual application of your Christian faith is going to protect you and your child in a secular sense is when it causes you to modify your behavior, as it has to do with the culture around you. When you’re letting the world flow in through that screen into your child’s mind every night, night after night, you have become “of the world.” But if you choose to turn that off and carefully screen those aspects that come into your child’s life... when your Christian faith becomes a foundation that makes it possible for you to transform your life, to separate yourself from the worldly, secular culture, then that faith becomes, in a secular sense, a very powerful protective instrument that can permit you to raise your child up straight and true. But if your real god is that television...if your real god is that culture....if your real god is the money, or whatever else is out there, then it will tell in the way you lead your life and what you do. Does that make sense?TRC: Absolutely, absolutely. This confirms everything I’ve always thought [about this]. There’s a lot of difference between saying you are a believer....saying you are a Christian...saying you are a church attender, and what you really do and what you really believe and what you really practice.CG: We spend most of our time every day worshipping at the great, glass idol. When you think about it, the television is in the area that icons were once placed in every home. It is the center of worship, the altar that we worship at. We spend more time in front of that than any other single act, and we need to stop and ask ourselves “What gods have we set?” ...you know, the first commandment - what gods have we set before our God?Next month we continue our interview with Col. Grossman, when we discuss the deeper aspects of officer survival. Stay tuned....

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