by Sherry Clayton
With the release of the American Sniper motion picture, I became more curious about the psychology of a sniper. What must it take to accept the responsibility of taking lives in order to protect the soldiers around you? Knowing that you if misjudge one target, one or several of your comrades may die. My brief internet research lead me to a fascinating book: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman.
Taken out of the context of war, the author describes violence in today’s society as an epidemic: Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency. This illness is signified by a desensitization to violence that is easily spread from parent to child, neighbor to neighbor and country to country. The insidiousness of the illness is compounded due to the fact that we ignore the symptoms and are constantly exposed to the disease through media (i.e.news, movie, videos, games, music).
Violent Tendencies – To Neglect is to Indulge
Ask yourself how many times you’ve turned the other way when someone exhibited violent tendencies or some type of distress? Not total strangers but someone you know. A friend told me about a young man in her neighborhood who complained of hearing voices telling him to hurt people. He was ignored by friends and family. No help was given. Later the same year, he killed his child and attempted to kill the mother. He’s in a mental institution now but only after grave damage was done.
Conditioning Isn’t Just for Soldiers and First Responders
According to Grossman, “when people become angry, or frightened, they stop thinking with their forebrain (the mind of a human being) and start thinking with their midbrain (which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal). They are literally “scared out of their wits.” The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain is also the only that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning.
That is what is done when training firemen and airline pilots to react to emergency situations: precise replication of the stimulus that they will face and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. In the crisis, when these individuals are scared out of their wits, they react properly and they save lives.”
We are Conditioning Children to Kill
According to a Publishers Weekly review, Grossman argues that the breakdown of American society, combined with the pervasive violence in the media and interactive video games, is conditioning our children to kill in a manner similar to the army’s conditioning of soldiers: “We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.”
If our programming has trained us to react with violence and death, then no wonder we are experiencing a crime epidemic. Sure, the dynamic is complex. Individuals, families and cultures differ but at the core, we have the same human reactions to stimulus. Most importantly, we respond to our conditioning.
Grossman believes that through the media, we are conditioning children to kill; and when they are frightened or angry, the conditioning kicks in.
Furthermore, I believe this book should be included in college curriculums and certain aspects in high school curriculum. That is when emotions are at their highest, impulse control is not strongly developed, and youth can feel the most vulnerable and threatened. If we can avoid at least one more mass school shooting, it would be well worth the cost.
“The health of humankind is not measured just by its coughs and wheezes but by the fevers of its soul. Or perhaps more important yet, by the quickness and care we bring against them.
If our history suggests unreason’s durability, our experience teaches that to neglect it is to indulge it and that to indulge it is to prepare hate’s triumph.”
As Grossman writes, “with the proper conditioning and the proper circumstances, it appears that almost anyone can and will kill.” By training the higher brain, we can hopefully address the epidemic of violence in our society.
- Book: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman
- War Poem: A Consecration by John Masefield
- War Poem: No Man’s Land by World War I Veteran James H. Knight-Adkins