BB’s, Bullets, and Innocence Lost

– by Walt Mueller
©1999, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

Paper bulls’-eyes and tin cans were no longer satisfying. Without really discussing it, Todd and I silently headed to the woods knowing that it was time to “graduate” to a new level of excitement by shooting at moving targets. Once in the woods and out of the sight of adult eyes, we passed his BB gun back and forth, alternating shots. Finally, Todd pumped up the gun, took careful aim into a tree, and pulled the trigger. A bloodied bird fell to the ground near our feet. We knelt over the bird and cried like babies as we watched it die. Guilty and shocked, we both ran home to confess our crime and seek solace in the arms of our mothers.

Even though it happened before my tenth birthday, my mind can still replay the entire incident as if it had been caught on videotape. Perhaps what I remember more than anything else was the fact that on that day, our hunting excursion resulted not just in the death of a bird, but the loss of a sizable chunk of my childhood innocence.

Whenever I relate that experience to children and teens today I’m interested in their response. Some see my shock and remorse as a legitimate and proper response. But a surprising number laugh in disbelief as they wonder how shooting a bird could have been so devastating to a pair of elementary-age little boys who had never “hunted” before.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this is a generation that lives with the everyday threat of violence in their schools. News reports have left them with an awareness of the fact that all across the country, their peers have killed and been killed. This is a generation that’s lost an even bigger piece of innocence. Tragically, some have moved beyond “What’s the big deal about killing a bird?” to “What’s the big deal about killing a person?”

The story of 15-year-old Kip Kinkel’s May 1998 shooting rampage offers compelling evidence of our culture’s collective loss of innocence. After killing his parents, he killed two of his Springfield, Oregonclassmates and wounded over twenty more. Kids who knew Kinkel had taken in stride his frequent mentions of his desire to shoot cats, blow up cows, build bombs, kill people, and blow up the world. One reporter even discovered that Kinkel’s literature classmates laughed when he read them a journal entry about his plans to “kill everybody.” (Randall Sullivan, Rolling Stone, 9/17/98). During investigations after the shooting, Kinkel’s teachers said they hadn’t reacted with alarm since a lot of kids in the school and around the country were saying the same things.

How have we gotten to the place where “killing talk” and behavior among our kids has become so commonplace that it doesn’t even shake us up anymore? In his recent article “Trained to Kill” (Christianity Today, 8/10/98), Lt. Col. David Grossman, an expert on the psychology of killing and author of the book On Killing, offers compelling and convincing insight into how our children and teens are being conditioned to pull the trigger. Grossman is an expert in the field of “Killology” – the study of the methods and psychological effects of training army recruits to circumvent their natural inhibitions to killing fellow human beings.

Citing convincing statistics to back his claims, Grossman points out that our culture is currently plagued by a fast-spreading “virus of violence.” The per capita murder rate in the U.S. doubled between 1957 and 1992. Even more alarming is the rate at which people are trying to kill each other. This aggravated assault rate has gone from around 60 per 100,000 in 1957 to over 440 per 100,000 in the mid 1990’s. Grossman says this rate would be much higher if not for two factors: First, there is an increase in the incarceration rate of violent offenders. A number of serious crimes have been averted as the prison population quadrupled between 1975 and 1992. And second, improvements in medical technology means that many victims who would have died from crime-related injuries are now living. In fact, “if we had 1940-level medical technology today, the murder rate would be ten times higher than it is.”

And how exactly do we train kids to kill? Of course there are numerous factors involved. Grossman says it’s a skill learned from years of violence and abuse in the home, as well as from the entertaining violence of television, film, and interactive video games. These cultural forces are better understood, says Grossman, by looking at four techniques the military uses to increase the killing rate of soldiers. Our culture uses the same four techniques on kids.

Military boot camp is all about brutalization and desensitization. From the moment they step off the bus, screaming, yelling, and herding are used to break down recruits and instill “a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence and death as a way of life.” The same things happen to the hearts and minds of the average kid who sees 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 televised acts of violence by the time they finish elementary school. Studies of population data for various countries show that after the introduction of television into the culture, violent behavior increases on the playground, and homicide rates double in 10 to 15 years.

Classical conditioning is a subtle yet powerful mechanism that teaches military personnel to like killing. That’s what happens when kids eat popcorn and drink soda while sitting in movie theaters or their own family room watching and cheering bloody on-screen violence. Over time, violence becomes associated with pleasure leading to what Grossman calls AVIDS – Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome. “It destroys your violence immune system and conditions you to derive pleasure from violence.” Suddenly, it’s much easier to throw a fist or pull a trigger.

The repetition of a constant stimulus-response procedure is a powerful teaching technique known as operant conditioning. Pilots are trained this way in flight simulators. When it comes time to react in a real situation, past repetition leads them to respond reflexively to a crisis. Law enforcement officers are trained the same way as they shoot at pop-up human silhouettes on the shooting range. Grossman says, “. . . . every time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the exact same conditioned reflex and motor skills.” Video games teach our impressionable young children to point and shoot, point and shoot, point and shoot. . .

Finally, the military drill sergeant is a role model who embodies violence and aggression. Today’s media provides our kids with highly influential role models who provide terrible yet powerful examples of how to handle conflict through violent means. Consider the fact that even in the popular entertainment world of professional wrestling, kids are now rooting for the bad guy to win.

Pretty eye-opening, huh? As the days and months pass, the need to respond to this growing tide of youth violence becomes increasingly urgent. It’s time to work at recovering our children’s lost innocence, replacing a heart to kill others with a Godly sense of right and wrong.

It’s a complex problem that doesn’t have easy answers. First we must start by teaching our own kids right from wrong. One step in that direction is to turn off media and video game violence in our homes. Fill that time with love, involvement, and attention. We’re mistaken if we think they’re being entertained and not educated by what they see. Second, we must challenge other parents to face the nasty reality of the role media violence plays in the lives of their kids. And third, we must identify and reach out to those children and teens who aren’t being raised in a home where involved parenting is a priority. They are sitting ducks waiting to be swept away by the prevailing winds of cultural attitudes. We must spend time with them, love them, and point them in the right direction through the power of relationships and example.

The cost of the virus of violence has been hearts, minds, and lives. The cure for the virus of violence and prescription for the recovery of innocence lies in diligent discipleship, diligent parenting, and diligent ministry to teens. Maybe someday, even a couple of little boys shooting a bird will once again be a big deal.


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