What turns people into killers? Despite what we might learn from the occasional Hollywood blockbuster, nobody emerges from the womb with that inclination. So something changes along the way.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this over the course of my career, even pulling some research together in my book, Transcending Violence, back in 2002. My core premise builds primarily on two sources: Dave Grossman’s insights from his military background, as discussed in his brilliant book, On Killing,
and Richard Rhodes’ discussion of criminologist Lonnie Athen’s work, as laid out in his essential reading, Why They Kill.
The resulting five step model for learning to kill is as follows:
1. Brutalization, or desensitization to violence. This could involve being beaten, or watching others being mistreated. The military model in most countries employs this tactic in basic training, and has done so for centuries. In less formal settings, this is often first experienced as child abuse.
2. Conditioning to use violence in response to threats. If I hit you enough times, and my attacks are inescapable, you’re likely to eventually strike back.
3. Role models demonstrate the effective use of violence to achieve desired ends. In the military model this part is played by the drill sergeant as well as higher ranking officers. In its best possible light, if those role models are highly disciplined to use their powers only for good, harming only those who must be harmed (the enemy) then their students are more likely to follow suit.
4. Testing. This is the phase in which a recruit takes the behavior out for a spin, to see if it works for them as promised. It often starts out as merely talking the talk, or posturing, but eventually transitions into physical acts of violence.
5. Virulence. For some people, the testing phase is where the training deteriorates—they find the violence unproductive, even repulsive and hopefully immoral. But for others the testing phase is successful—they find that they’re good at it, that it pays off, that it earns them respect or other benefits. If it an individual reaches this point in their training they are at risk of crossing a line into virulent behavior. Once this line is crossed there no longer needs to be a reasonable motive for violence – it just feels good, right and powerful. Might makes right.
Boiled down even tighter, the violence-training model has three basic messages: the world is a violent, scary place. You will need violence in order to survive. And we will show you what you need to know.
For purposes of this posting I don’t want to dwell on this model so much as to invert it. If this is a blueprint for homicidal maniacs, shouldn’t the opposite be a good recipe for safe, responsible, respectful human beings? Here’s what that would look like, step by step:
1. Nurturing. The opposite of brutalization, this involves treating people kindly, bringing out the best in them.
2. Conditioning. If my experience growing up reinforces this nurturing approach repeatedly, I’m more inclined to see it as the norm for human behavior.
3. Role models. My family members, fellow students, neighbors and religious leaders all demonstrate civil behavior. My heroes in the media, politics and talk radio do so as well.
4. Testing. When I show kindness to others the results are positive – they appreciate my kind behavior and respond in kind.
5. Kindness becomes a core value and instinctive behavior that goes beyond survival mechanism. We are kind because it feels right.
In summary, to help ourselves transcend violence we must teach the following:
1. The world is a peaceful, friendly place,
2. You should treat others with kindness in order to thrive, and
3. We will present you with role models throughout your life who will show you how.