"YOU'RE GONNA DIE. Target Specific body parts and actually see the damage done -- including exit wounds." "Deploy. Destroy. Then relax over a cold one."
"It's a different battle every time you play. The smell of burning corpses, however, never changes." "Torture Has Never Been So Much Fun."
Parents shocked by these examples from expensive ads for video games in recent electronic gaming magazines might want to spend a couple of hours playing their teen-age sons' favorite games. Yet video games are only part of the problem. American children grow up in a world saturated with unnecessary violence.
Last month we were stunned at seemingly random, senseless killings by middle-class males in Honolulu and Seattle. The most recent shooting was at a middle school in Oklahoma. Headlines call the event "inexplicable," and again some wonder how it could happen. The answer is not hard to find.
Despite endless studies with findings to the contrary, we choose to deny any harmful consequences of violent toys, games, sports, entertainment and language. By accepting children as a huge economic market, we make them fair game for anyone with a money-making idea, no matter how manipulative or violent. We impose few restraints on the violent animated, electronic and dramatized images sold to children and teens.
As a society we have a love affair with guns. Half of American homes contain at least one gun. Civilians own more than 200 million guns, with two to three million more added each year. We have nearly twice as many federally licensed gun dealers, importers and exporters (21,675) as McDonald's restaurants (12,500.) Some 2,000-5,000 annual gun shows are attended by perhaps 5 million people who may legally buy weapons there without background checks. Congress refuses to close the loopholes for gun-show purchases.
By 18, American boys have seen thousands of killings dramatized on TV and film. Violent video games abound. Their popularity surely illustrates social pathology, but they are only part of the spectrum of violent play, entertainment and images.
Realistic toy guns are no longer made, but parents supply their boys with colorful play weapons such as Super-Soakers, so they can run around shooting each other. Middle-class teen-age boys stalk and shoot each other as they play PaintBall. Whether boys are squirting water, shooting paint capsules or firing electronic game weapons, they use the same words -- "kill," "die," "dead" -- uttered by the killers at Columbine.
Special-effects technology has raised the ante on violent imagery, allowing vivid depiction of the visual gore, the grotesque, the vampires and the alien creatures so popular today. Slasher films have become camp. "H20: Halloween Twenty Years Later" was advertised as a "fun ride." "Natural Born Killers" was initially advertised on TV as "delirious, daredevil fun." Choreographed professional wrestling violence, marketed recently as "Halloween havoc," has never been more popular.
Prolonged exposure to violent entertainment rarely creates killers, but it has powerful, insidious effects. It crowds out other possibilities. It occupies too much mental shelf-space. It consumes our leisure hours. It cripples our imaginations, warps our sensibilities and numbs us to the real consequences of violence.
Violence is visceral. It requires no translation, no subtitles, no thesaurus. It takes no effort to understand or practice. Its learning curve is vertical. Bloody scenes and explosions stick in children's fly-paper minds. We all forget that there are other ways of being entertained.
We permit violence to be marketed as fun. We define it as both entertaining and tragic, as thrilling and horrifying. But we cannot continue to have it both ways without accepting the costs.
We must treat violent entertainment like pornography and categorize guns like tobacco, as addictive, hazardous substances. We must pay greater attention to the marketers' paradise we call childhood and find more creative ways to reduce the commodified isolation in which children grow up.
We must prevent boys who are not old enough to buy a beer from legally purchasing assault weapons at gun shows. We must identify and deal more effectively with the alienation and smoldering rage that turn middle-class males into gun-wielding killers.
Guns provide simple solutions to anger by offering illusions of dominance in a world seemingly out of control. Over the last two decades more than 650,000 Americans have been killed by guns in a nation at war with itself. More Americans under age 20 have been killed by guns since 1979 than the number of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam.
Until we acknowledge responsibility for the cultural climate we have created, we will have to accept the industrial world's highest levels of adult homicide (and suicide) and child mortality due to firearms.
In the past few months, we've seen tragedies at schools in Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga., a day care center in Los Angeles, a church in Fort Worth, an office in Atlanta, in Honolulu and in Seattle. The five children "only" wounded by a classmate at the middle school in Fort Gibson, Okla., were lucky.
Why do we continue to be surprised as the list grows longer? When will we have had enough?
ROBERT MYERS coordinates the interdisciplinary minor in violence studies and teaches anthropology and public health at Alfred University. He has three young sons.