“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation, and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, as unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different parts of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”
Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis


Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. We have been examining the causes and conditions involved when young people become mass murderers. The statistics characterizing home life, media saturation, and school pressures open our eyes to just how pervasive the major risk factors are in the lives of our young people. In spite of these historic pressures, the great majority of our young handle the stress well and display wonderful character. Even with war being the other major factor in our young people’s environment throughout this century, they are able to resist acting as monsters. How does that work, why does that happen?

Though killers grab the headlines I want to direct our attention to an often overlooked finding the studies of violence have uncovered. It is important for us to understand it is not easy for a human being to kill another human being at ranges close enough  to see the humanity and the suffering of the victim. James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Rambo and Indiana Jones remorselessly killing hundreds of men are part of a deceptive propaganda that glorifies war and violence by teaching that killing is easy. It is not.

That it is not easy to take the safety switch off a human being and get them to kill other human beings has been a problem for armies for centuries. U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall during WWII asked average soldiers what they did in battle. He and other military historians had access to the soldiers as they returned from the European theater on the long ship rides home. While memories were still fresh the soldiers told him the most unexpected thing.  He discovered that during an engagement with the enemy an average of only 15 to 20 of every hundred men “would take part with their weapons.” The findings were drawn from interviews with thousands of soldiers from more than four hundred infantry companies.

It is extremely easy to look to be shooting the enemy but aiming slightly higher and evidently this was rampant. Additionally from the soldiers own reports he learned that it was very common for some soldiers in a unit to play a supporting role for a few key shooters. They would restock their ammunition supplies, trade jammed guns, run messages, rescue colleagues and generally do all they could short of actually shooting at the enemy.

Modern armed forces took these findings very seriously and began a systematic redesign of how soldiers would be trained to kill. What they discovered is that there is a formidable psychological barrier that needs to be overcome in most people before they will ever have a good chance of actually being able to kill when the time comes. Think about this. In the real world human beings, with our deep roots in our social primate pasts, have an aversion to killing members of our own species up close and personal.

The modern army orchestrates an array of techniques to specifically take the safety catch off its soldiers. Boot camp’s drills are using operant conditioning to create the correct battle field responses ‘without having to think about it’ which is how our soldiers survive. Drill sergeants threats of immediate aggression provide an environment in which such reimprinting can successfully occur. “In the Vietnam era the drill sergeant communicated a glorification of killing and violence of an intensity never before seen. We did it intentionally. We did it calculatingly.” (Grossman 2009)

An infamous psychological experiment might shed light on the behavioral modification forces at play in such processes. A dog kept in a kennel with the floor wired up to deliver painful electrical shocks at unpredictable times and places first jumps out of the way when an electrical shock is administered. Over time as the dog learns that nothing it does lessens the schedule of the shocks or brings relief, a state of what is called learned helplessness sets in. The dog no longer tries to move away from the shocks, it just sits there taking it, whimpering.

However, if just once during the early stages when the dog moves away from the source of the shock it is allowed to break free from the kennel – it will never display learned helplessness. It does not matter how long the cruel experiment is carried on. After that experience that dog will not learn learned helplessness. The army recruit in boot camp is not wholly dissimilar, though the shocks are physical exhaustion, social humility, mental confusion and emotional turmoil instead of electrical and the freedoms earned run along the lines of a three day pass and eventually graduation.

Another technique implemented in training young recruits should make your blood run cold when you really understand it and then consider the popularity of first person shooter video games.  WWII recruits learned marksmanship firing at circular targets. After General Marshall’s research those were replaced with life-like silhouettes. The firing range was now populated not by abstract circles and squares but realistically human shaped and sized targets.

The book from which this military history is drawn is On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.He has spent his life studying violence as it actually happens in the real world and christened the new science killology. On Killing became a major resource at West Point, the FBI Academy and hundreds of police departments. He strives to set aside politics and even morality and just look at the evidence in detail around what happens when human beings kill one another.

He mentions other factors of the new training such as dehumanizing the enemy (gooks to rag-heads) and the importance of camaraderie forged in life threatening environments. He reports the estimated effectiveness of the infantry due to modern training technologies rose from 15 – 20 percent of soldiers actually shooting to kill the enemy in WWII to 70 – 85 percent in Vietnam. Lt. Col. Grossman goes on to explain that while it is relatively easy to train a human being to take the safety catch off, it is much harder to prepare people to deal with the emotional fallout that results. Now that so many more soldiers are actually participating in death up close and personal the incidents of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome are epidemic. We have learned it is much easier to teach a man to pull the trigger than it is to teach him how to live with the remorse.

There is a very important distinction between violence committed by young people on the battle field versus in a school. A soldier never commits an act of violence unless under orders, unless given the authority to do so. This rule is sacrosanct in the military. This is why the statistics show the incidents of violent crime committed by veterans is no higher, and may in fact be slightly lower, than by members of the society at large.

By whose authority are our children killing? The board members of Activision, Blizzard and Microsoft? The screenwriters, actors and producers in Hollywood? Perhaps in some way, to some small degree, the bad conscience of a society incapable of changing its behavior to leave the next generation a legacy less filled with “debris, desolation and filth”?

Armies have spent centuries perfecting the behavioral manipulation technologies that can mold young people into soldiers capable of defeating the enemy and returning home safely. Vast fortunes of countless kingdoms and nations have been spent over those centuries in both blood and silver. This human knowledge of killing has been purchased at a very dear price. From one perspective it reflects the horrors of hell yet from another stands as an astonishing witness to the basic empathetic nature of the human animal. “At close range the resistance to killing an opponent is tremendous. When one looks an opponent in the eye, and knows that he is young or old, scared or angry, it is not possible to deny that the individual about to be killed is much like oneself.” (Grossman 2009)

So this is what we learn from the study of killology. It should give us pause that the circumstances of our school shootings are such that the killers not only see their victims up close, but in many cases even knew them personally. The boundaries being crossed are unprecedented in the modern world. As was mentioned last week, this is something new.

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