Saturday, October 3, 2015

Shooting to Kill

(Second of three occasioned by the shootings at Umpqua Community College.)

Let me begin with another story. 

Some years back, I was mugged at gunpoint one day outside a Saks store in a major U.S. city.  The mugger pointed his gun (looked like the one at right) and demanded my handbag.  He said three times that he would shoot me, and so I threw him my purse and he ran away.
     Ten days later, my banker called and told me that one of my checks had been used an hour after I was robbed.  The mugger's bank released credit on the phony $1,300 check, and the mugger immediately spent the money. 
      So I got on the phone with the number of the complaint I had filed and talked with police detectives who figured out immediately who the mugger was.  For months afterward, I called and wrote detailed letters to cops, the asst. DA and the judge on the case.  I offered to fly at my own expense to testify against the mugger.
      But no.  The mugger took a plea for check kiting and was sentenced to a year of probation.  The armed robbery was a mulligan. 

This was the fifth felony committed against my law-abiding siblings and me.  Two of those involved serious personal violence, but even with possibly helpful information offered up by neighbors, police never investigated either one.  

Anger can marinate in a person's head, and it did so in mine.  I replayed the mugging in my head.  I remembered a woman lawyer I'd known in Texas who carried a 357 magnum in her handbag.  I reasoned that if the police couldn't protect me and the prosecutor wouldn't prosecute, I would have felt better if I had been able to take care of myself.  
      I had never shot a gun, and so I decided to do some research.  I went to a gun store.  The owner took me to a target range, handed me a Sig Sauer pistol and showed me how it worked.  Then I tried my hand at shooting.  
      An hour later, I realized that it was not going to work.  I had learned how to shoot at targets, but the idea of holding a gun on the street terrified me.  I realized that it would take years for me to develop the confidence to shoot even in an appropriate situation.  

It turns out I am not the only one.


During World War II, a brigadier general asked average soldiers how they behaved in battle. His conclusion: Of every 100 men along the line of fire during combat, an average of only 15 to 20 "would take any part with their weapons." Those who did shoot, he said, often aimed their guns high to avoid killing even enemies.  

This finding was contested hotly, but further research -- historical and scientific -- seemed to bear out the truth of it. 

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (ret.) has studied this and written several books.  In an essay, he explained further.
     "Those who would not fire did not run or hide—in many cases they were willing 
     to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. 
     They simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy. . . .
         "Why did these men fail to fire? . . . (T)here was one major factor 
     missing from the common understanding of this process. . . the simple and                            demonstrable fact that there is, within most men and women, an intense 
     resistance to killing other people. A resistance so strong that, in many 
     circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it."

In the interest of greater effectiveness on the battlefield, the military changed its training. 
Target practice, for example, was replaced with hourslong, staged trench battles in which soldiers learned to shoot reflexively and instantly at human forms that popped up randomly.  
There also was psychological training. Grossman quotes another author who wrote this:  “The language used in [marine training camp] Parris Island to describe the joys of killing people,” writes (Gwynne) Dyer, helps “desensitize [marines] to the suffering of an ‘enemy,’ and at the same time they are being indoctrinated in the most explicit fashion (as previous generations were not) with the notion that their purpose is not just to be brave or to fight well; it is to kill people.”

Over time, firing by soldiers increased -- to 55 percent during the Korean conflict and as high as 95 percent in Vietnam.  In more recent battles in Somalia and Iraq, very small groups of American soldiers handily repelled and defeated much larger guerilla forces. 

Imitation of War

Below is a youtube post by a former U.S. Marine who evaluates the realism of online wargames as he plays them and then puts the results online.  This episode depicts "The Crucible," a culminating 54-hour chapter in the final stages of Marine training.

We all know that there are many videogames that simulate war situations.  They are popular mostly with young men.  In many cases, players use gunlike controllers.

For a certain very small subset of these young men, the games become almost addicting.  Think of socially awkward types, the intensely introverted, the mentally ill, the ones whose lives seem to be going nowhere.  Some of these guys spend all their days and nights practicing how to kill people.  Effectively, they absorb modern military training alone at their computer screens.

What they do not absorb is the difference between military training and their immersion in war games.  Soldiers shoot because they have been ordered to fight.  Crazy people shoot because they are crazy; they have no concept of the rules of engagement.  

One 2011 serial killer, Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, spent two years in a bedroom in his mother's apartment playing a multiplayer wargame.  Then he carefully planned and executed a bombing and shooting rampage that left 80 people dead.  His view of reality had become so distorted that he said afterward that he was surprised that the people he targeted ran away from him and his guns rather than trying to fight him.

War-like video games almost certainly have made it easier for unhappy young men to contemplate doing what most people will not do: kill people. 

To failed men, the games offer a fantasy of dominance in a world where they have been unable to succeed.  If their thinking is muddled enough, the next step is to buy guns and imagine using them.  From there, some actually go out and pull the triggers. 

My bet is that it was one of these guys who killed all those people in Oregon this week.

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