Culture of Violence: Are games & media part of the problem?

This is the 4th and final Wild Duck editorial related to the Newtown school
massacre in December 2012. Scroll down to view these articles:

■ Logan’s Guardians: Poignant Sandy Hook back story
■ 3-Prong Approach to School Security Avoids Lockdown
■ Few tributes to killer’s mother? Don’t feel guilt
■ Violence in Games & Media: Not part of the problem

Liza Long has become an internet sensation of sorts. Her Blog post “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  [alternate site] went viral in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. Of course, she is not Nancy Lanza. The shooter’s mother was the first victim of a calculated rampage that left 28 dead in all, including 20 first-grade students and 6 staff members.

Mrs. Long’s 13 year old son exhibits periodic, aggressive and threatening outbursts. This violent behavior alternates with longer periods of high-performing academics and true remorse over the violent episodes. As you can imagine, the boy has had numerous diagnoses. Brief episodes of aberrant behavior interspersed by apology or confusion could be a symptom of mental illness, a tumor, or even a trauma. It could relate to his food, his family environment, or even religious delusion (In this case, none of these are among the various diagnoses of mental illness).

But the article is not an analysis of the boy. It is a sharing of the enormous effort and anguish of being parent to a teenage child with mental illness and, as Liza explains in follow-up interviews, it is a plea for help and also an expression of her opinion that identifying and treating mental illness may save more lives than gun control.

Mrs. Long is one heck of a great writer! Her story column is among the most compelling and persuasive editorials I have ever read. I could learn from her communication style: captivating, thought provoking, and very clearly articulated.

I suspect that both issues factor into the number of mass murders: mental illness and easy gun ownership & transfer. But some pundits, including the current head of the National Rifle Association are pointing to America’s culture of violence, especially the violence depicted in Hollywood films, on TV and in computer and video games.

I would not be quick to ban violence in films or in fiction (TV and video games). It is a slippery slope that easily leads to banning Roadrunner cartoons (Wiley E. Coyote frequently blows himself up or falls into canyons). What about non-fiction? Why not ban guns and bombs in historical documentaries? What about War and Peace? What about Disney? (the beginning of Bambi or Finding Nemo). What about the Bible? That’s probably the most violent book ever written!

In my opinion, banning violence in media provides a false panacea. Research demon-strates a connection between fictional violence and immediate attitude. I acknowledge this. For example, when kids play military “kill” games, they are more likely to react to an innocent bump as if it were intentional—and they are more likely to escalate the interaction.

While I do not dispute these findings, I believe that the reaction is temporary and superficial. The Japanese culture is filled with horrific violence in both games and fiction. Hentai cartoon books are a popular staple in subway kiosks and snatched up by business commuters. They depict rape, gore and dismemberment. Yet, the incidence of real violence, including violence directed toward woman and children, is almost non-existent. It is far, far below the statistical rate in America.

In fact, a contrary force may actually correlate violent media with peaceful coexistence. I suspect that fictional violence provides a personal release for aggressive tendencies and therefore reduces violent interaction in the real world.*

If I am correct (that fictional violence offers a relief valve), then the real question is what mechanism or what types of individuals cross the chasm from imagination to practice? Certainly, easy availability to weapons can play a role in transforming a moment of intense passion or rage into an act of aggression. So, introducing gun control is very likely a good thing. But guns will never be impossible to obtain, and so we must also explore the roots of mental illness and more importantly, the mechanisms or identification of individuals who may “cross the chasm”.

Some people choose to commit suicide by jumping into the Grand Canyon. Because of this, the National Park Service briefly fenced off every lookout point in the mid 1980s. I was incensed! They were taking away from every citizen and visitor the privilege and majestic view! It just didn’t make sense. I was relieved when they buckled to an outraged public reaction. After all, someone bent on suicide could step in front of a car or slice open a vein. I see the removal of violence from media not as an overreaction, but as completely ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive. (Imagine outlawing Terminator, Rambo, or a World War documentary).

* I believe that the same is true of pornography. Fortunately, an increasing number of feminists have dropped a tired, outdated argument that pornography debases {name a gender, race or socio-economic class} and subtly alters a consumer’s attitude toward the characters depicted. But I dasn’t mix venues. It is a separate issue.

Ellery Davies clarifies the intersection of Technology, Law and Public
Policy. He is a contributor to Yahoo, CNet, ABC News, PCWorld and
The Wall Street Journal. He is also Chief Editor of A Wild Duck.

Few tributes to Nancy Lanza? Don’t feel guilt

In the wake of the Newtown Connecticut school massacre, there were many tributes to the 20 students and 6 teachers who were slain by Adam Lanza. The number of victims, 26, was repeated by news media, bloggers and even the US President as they honored the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School and shared in a nation’s collective grief.

Shedding a tear for 26 victims

But Adam Lanza killed 28 indivi-duals on that day. In addition to killing himself, the first shooting victim is absent in this count. She wasn’t at the school. Having re-turned from a resort vacation, she was still asleep on Friday morn-ing. As he set out to decimate a community, Lanza started the day by shooting his mother, Nancy Lanza, four times in the head. Minutes later, he parked at Sandy Hook Elementary School and entered the building, commando style. The rest of that morning is etched into our collective psyche by the sheer enormity of its evil.

Today, CNN anchor, Carol Castello asked viewers how Adam Lanza’s mother should be remembered. Specifically, should she be part of the many moving tributes to the victims of her son’s massacre? After all, with 4 gun shots to the head in her own bed, was she not also a victim?

Regular readers may notice that this posting has no photo of Mrs. Lanza. Adam Lanza’s mother is certainly a victim. There is no doubt. But deserving of a nation’s collective grief and the outpouring of homages to the school victims? Hardly! Grieving or honoring her life is a personal decision. Anyone can offer a tribute or honor her memory as a victim. But I certainly don’t think of her in the same light as the slain students & staff in Newtown.

Hers, is an individual story of a woman killed by a family member. I place it in the realm of domestic violence, even though, in this case, the violence came about as the result of mental illness and easy access to weapons—rather than at the hands of an abusive spouse.

But the children and staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School were murdered by a stranger and on a massive scope. By any definition, they are the “innocents”. They present a tragedy of national interest–­not just because of our collective grief, but because they raise such important questions about our safety, views and laws… Questions that are finally being debated in earnest by the electorate.

It is not clear to what degree that Mrs. Lanza bears responsibility for the actions of her son. But, the death of a mom who played a role in enabling her mentally unstable son is of less collective, emotional import than the death of 26 women and children who were so innocent of any involvement in Mrs. Lanza’s affairs. For me, this is the real reason that I will not be celebrating the memory of a killer’s mother.

3 Prong Approach to School Security Avoids Lockdown

This past Friday, we witnessed the aftermath of violence and tragedy: The murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. In the article before this one, AWildDuck shared a poignant and emotional story of Logan Dryer, a 6 year old boy who was protected from his fears by four victims of the massacre.

In the wake of tragedy caused by violence, it’s inevitable that politicians, pundits, and specialists rush to patch the security apparatus or call for new studies of mental illness. For many in the United States, it’s high time for more restrictive gun control laws, and certainly, something could be done to improve detection and intervention of individuals capable of massacring children. A national dialogue on meaningful gun control is certainly in order, but this won’t address the root of the problem and it certainly won’t solve the problem. It’s hard to imagine that criminals and high performing individuals with aggressive forms of mental illness will not get access to weapons.

Of course, a better understanding of mental illness would be a great leap forward, but we certainly don’t want a police state that incarcerates people because of what they might do.  In this moving Blog post, the mother of a 13 year old boy with mental illness explains the tribulations of dealing with her son. He has brief explosive bouts during which he presents a danger to anyone in the vicinity.

Improved school safety could definitely be part of a solution, but here – again – we don’t want our children studying in prisons that are inhospitable to pupils, educators and community participation.

Bob Strang: Importance of tightening security in school

Bob Strang, the CEO of Investigative Management Group is a specialist in threat-assessment. In a Fox News interview, he proposes addressing the effectiveness of all three areas: weapons, criminal psychology, and school security. His 3-prong proposal is designed to reduce the likelihood of a lethal school rampage like the one we witnessed this past week.

Mr. Strang suggests that we simultaneously change or reinforce these areas, not necessarily in major ways. For example, he does not propose that we ban civilian guns or prevent all unannounced visitors to a school. The first may be unrealistic and the latter may set a grim tone for socializing and learning.

  1. Gun Control:  For example, ban assault weapons, limit clips, end the gun-show loophole
  2. Mental Illness:  He has no specific suggestions, but I think he is hinting at better identification and preemptive intervention
  3. School Security: This is where it gets interesting . . .

Strang suggests that every school have an armed security professional, possibly recruited and screened from returning war veterans.

In my opinion, suggestion #3 has several problems.

  • I wonder if Strang envisions a sniper in a watch tower? I cannot imagine that a single officer in an interior office or even patrolling corridors could be very effective. I could see using armed guards at some inner city schools that struggle with violence daily.
  • And where would the money come from? Probably a reduction in teaching staff!
Elementary school of the future?

Elementary school of the future?

■ Most importantly, a subtle shift from an inviting campus to a restrictive campus has profound implications. The presence of armed guards contributes to an environment that feels more like a prison than a place for learning. It deters unannounced visits from parents and educators—even if the guard is undercover. It bakes into our daily routines an omni-present fear of terrorists and murderers and teaches children that strangers are inherently bad, rather than the judgment they need to develop personal safety habits and an ability to adapt. I prefer an inviting campus that does not have intimidating barriers to plays, concerts, sports events, community groups, and especially parent-teacher conferences. The presence of guards and guns puts a chill on all of these venues.

This led me to think of a slightly less apparent security apparatus and a less restrictive environment. I wonder if it could be effective. Rather than an armed sniper at every school, I wonder if this plan could be an effective alternative to part 3 of Mr. Strang’s suggestion…

3a)  A national school-safety czar. Not necessarily at the cabinet level, but under the auspices of our Department of Homeland Security. His role is to set coordinate studies, gather consensus, set policies and encourage standardized practices for drills, lockdowns, spotting suspicious activity, negotiation, etc.

3b)  An individual at each school (perhaps existing staff), who is liaison to the safety czar. She gathers intelligence (identify aberrant behavior, online threat absences, etc), investigates cause, implements a standards-based policy, verifies that cameras and perimeters are alert and secure, trains teachers & admins, avoid the complacency that comes with peaceful years on end.

She also works with local law enforcement to plan and practice response time,
review interior maps and perhaps install quick reacting defense, such as tear gas
or floor-level grease dispensers that can disable aggressors in access corridors.

How does my #3b differ from Mr. Strang’s #3. First, it doesn’t add lethal firepower to an area that seeks protection from firepower. I don’t buy the NRA claim that more guns is a solution to ending gun violence. After all, with a population of 200 million adults, America already has 300 million guns. It certainly hasn’t shielded her citizens from violence. Second, it is probably cheaper. Third, it relies on brains, standardized plans and preparation rather than brawn and bullets. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think that this fits within the ethos that we teach our children.

Using a loose analogy, this is why Captain Picard solved problems with his head rather than using his fists and groin like the original Captain Kirk. That earlier Star Trek series looks like a slapstick satire next to the newer one. This is not just due to an improvement in special effects. The Next Generation series is more believable because it is not a “shoot-em-up” western.

And where would the money come from? Probably a reduction in teaching staff!

Logan’s Guardian: Poignant Sandy Hook back story

Lives cut short. Such enormous loss. So much grief

                                  Lives cut short. Such enormous loss. So much grief

This is a difficult Monday morning, as a nation reflects on the Sandy Hook / Newtown Connecticut school massacre. Six adults and twenty children (all of them, 6 or 7 years old) were slaughtered as they started school on Friday.

Emilie Parkers Dad, Robbie

Depth of despair: Emilie Parker’s Dad, Robbie

It’s possible to have empathy for distraught parents and families and to imagine their grief, but it is impossible to experience the depth of their despair. Somehow, it seems unfair that we are powerless to shift some of their overwhelming grief onto our own shoulders.

There are many tributes on TV and across the country with photos of individual victims and a vignette about a favorite color, hobby, school work or their families. But here is a simple story in the Los Angeles Times that has no photo, yet it is a profoundly emotional read. (This is triggering—It left me shattered)…

The family of one victim, Madeline Hsu, has not provided a photo of their child. So far, news bureaus have refrained from using school photos. The family does not want her face broadcast in the media. They are grieving privately, with a police cruiser outside their home to discourage reporters or well-wishers from bothering them.

Across the street lives a little boy, Logan Dryer, who is 5. He is one year younger than Madeline and suffers from panic attacks. (He does not yet know about the shooting). Since the start of the school year, he has been afraid of going to school, especially afraid of leaving on the school bus. But with the help of Madeline and another shooting victim, Carolyn Previdi, he has been getting onto the bus on most mornings. Madeline promised Logan’s mom that she and Carolyn would be “Logan’s Guardians” and demonstrate to him that there is nothing to be scared of. Each morning, they take over for Logan’s Mom and hold his hand as they wait for the bus. Then, these two girls — both are dead now — would sit next to Logan and help him to be calm, happy and engaged on the bus ride to school.

According to the Times article, Madeline and Carolyn’s parents didn’t know that their daughters had taken on the role of guardians to a panic prone child. In fact, they had never met the Dryers. The girls did this of their own volition.

Dawn Hochspring and Mary Sherlach

Dawn Hochsprung (Principal) and Mary Sherlach

Once Logan arrived at school, two caring adults took over from the girls, holding Logan when he needed it and whispering away his fears: Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung and school psycholo-gist, Mary Sherlach. But Fate took another gut wrenching turn for little Logan, because these two adults were the first shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The killer had apparently fingered them as targets from the onset.

Now, Logan’s mom asks herself the really tough question: How can she explain to Logan that all four of his guardian angels were killed without cause and without warning? These were very individuals who brushed away fear and gave a 5 year old the strength to go to school. They assured him that it was safe to do so. And it wasn’t.

Ironically, Logan did not get on the bus last Friday. He had a panic attack. That was just before a shooter entered his school and began killing.

How can anyone read this story and not cry? Is safety and illusion? How will Logan’s family eventually explain this to the frightened boy? How can he believe in anything now?

Other back stories, selected by AWildDuck: