Violent media’s role in homegrown terrorism

March 30, 1981: John Hinckley Jr., the 25-year-old son of a wealthy oil executive, fires six bullets in the direction of President Ronald Reagan as he enters the presidential limousine outside a Washington, D.C. hotel. The first bullet hits press secretary James Brady in the head, resulting in his death in 2014. The second and fourth hit a D.C. police officer in the neck and a Secret Service agent as they rush to cover Reagan, while the third bullet, misfired, hits a nearby building window. The fifth bullet hits the limousine’s bulletproof window. One more shot is fired before bystanders tackle Hinckley to the ground. The final bullet ricochets off the side of the limousine and enters the left side of Reagan’s chest, lodging in his lung and stopping a mere inch short of his heart.

Leading up to this assassination attempt, Hinckley was obsessed with the 1976 film “Taxi Driver.” The action film centers around Travis Bickle, a clearly deranged man who, after attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate, saves a child prostitute (played by Jodie Foster) by killing her pimp and a few others in a gloriously gory scene. Hinckley, impressed by Foster’s performance, became unhealthily infatuated with her, going so far as to stalk her at Yale. In effort to get her attention and prove his worthiness, Hinckley decided to follow the example of Foster’s hero, Bickle, in “Taxi Driver” and attempted to kill the president. Unsurprisingly, Foster was not impressed.

April 20, 1999: Columbine High School seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold enter their school on a Tuesday morning carrying pipe bombs concealed in duffel bags. They leave them in the cafeteria, set to detonate during the busiest lunch hour, and return to Klebold’s car to watch the chaos unfold. When the time comes but no bombs have detonated, they grab their sawed-off shotguns and begin a rampage that starts in the school’s front lawn and ends with their suicides in the library. Twelve students and one teacher are killed. Twenty-four others withstand severe but non-fatal injuries. A countless number of people remain psychologically scarred by the day’s events.

Though the attack was frequently described as a lashing out in initial reports, Harris and Klebold spent over a year formulating their plan to be like “the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke and Doom all mixed together.” They saw the massacre as a “mission,” retribution for the injustice they experienced at the hands of school bullies. They wished to reenact the shooting video games they played obsessively. They matched the theatricality of their video games with knee-length trench coats covering plain shirts with custom messages. Klebold’s shirt read “WRATH” Harris’s, “NATURAL SELECTION.”  

May 23, 2014: After sending a 107,000-word manifesto to his therapist, family and a few acquaintances, University of California, Santa Barbara student Elliot Rodger kills his three roommates before driving to the campus sorority houses and shooting three sorority members, killing the first two and injuring the third. He gets back in his car and drives to a deli, where he shoots and kills another student. He drives away from the scene, injuring several pedestrians with his car, until he crashes at an intersection. In the wreckage, he turns the gun on himself and dies.

Rodger spent his life blaming others for everything bad in his life. The reason that no girls liked him or that no one wanted to be his friend or that he failed in school was always other people. So, he abandoned reality, escaping into violent video games where he could control the fate of others. The massacre, inspired by “Diablo II” and “Halo,” was Rodger’s transfer of the control he felt in video games to the real world. Unfortunately, in real life, killing people does not have the same appeal and almost always results in death or prison.

There are several obvious commonalities among these examples. Guns? Sure. Mental illness? Maybe. Although these violent events are multi-causal, I emphasize the role of the glorification of violence.

First and foremost, I think it is tremendously important to maintain a nuanced and balanced view of these events. It is not the sensationalization of violence in media nor poor mental health services nor bad parenting nor gun (de)regulation nor any of the millions of reasons alone that provokes tragedies of this caliber. In every case, a blend of unfortunate circumstances pushes unstable individuals to horrific actions. The blend is not the same in every case. In some, mental illness plays a dominant role. In others, a video game addiction may desensitize an already unstable individual to the point that he believes extreme violence is an appropriate response to a perceived injustice.

However, it is negligent to refuse to delve into a probable cause simply because it is “not the only reason.” A good understanding of every contributing factor is necessary to prevent attacks like these, especially as the rate of massacres in the U.S. increases.

Whether it be in the formative pubescent years or volatile young adulthood, the media possess an enormously powerful stronghold. The thrall of media can imprint patterns incongruous with reality on impressionable minds. A multitude of studies have found that violent TV shows, movies and video games lead to aggressive behavior.

Excessive intake of media can dissociate the consumer from the real world. Especially for unstable individuals, these violent media can enchant to the point of superseding reality. John Hinckley Jr. was plagued with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder that denied him a firm concept of reality or personal identity. He was so enthralled by “Taxi Driver” that, after watching it fourteen times in theaters, he virtually assumed the identity of the main character, ultimately believing that he must kill the president to win Jodie Foster’s love.

Similarly, Elliot Rodger spent entire days in cyber cafés, playing first-person killing games, like “Halo” and “Diablo II,” or “World of Warcraft,” a fantasy role-playing game. Eventually his worldview adopted the offensive elements of these games. He began to frame life as him against the world, and he was intent on winning.

Violent video games are particularly dangerous because they enable the player to commit unspeakable acts without consequence. In his diary, Harris wrote that the massacre at Columbine will be just like “Doom,” a first-person shooter game. He also remarked that he intended to achieve a body count higher than the Oklahoma City bombing. Through a steady flow of video games and movies that conflated violence with entertainment, Harris began to think of tragic events as competitions in which the more profound tragedy wins.

Avid video gamers may be reading this with indignation, presumably thinking, “I’ve played all sorts of violent video games and haven’t committed or even considered carrying out an action similar these.” Perhaps not. But simply because most have not been inspired to commit violent acts because of violent media does not mean no one has. Furthermore, just because you have not noticed any changes in behavior does not mean that violent media has not changed you implicitly.

This argument isn’t meant to advocate a limitation of artistic license in media. Rather, it argues the opposite. Since the 1970s, violence in media has skyrocketed. Scriptwriters have forgone intricate storytelling for fantastic scenes of gore and savagery. Creators have realized that the best-selling content contains two things: sex and violence. Some of the most influential media combine the two to create an even more attention-grabbing and potentially dangerous breed of content. Take “Taxi Driver” or “Grand Theft Auto,” for example.

While I believe mental health is the number one priority in cultivating safety, universal mental health is not a realistic prospect and its imperfection is subject to a number of uncontrollable variables. By no means does mental instability automatically correlate to violence, but violent media can have much more profound effects on mentally vulnerable individuals. Unstable viewers of violent media like Hinckley or Rodger may be so entranced that the content becomes reality. How do we prevent media-born seeds of violence from being planted in their minds?

Many advocate increased government regulation of media, but federal regulation does not seem like an appropriate response. The Brady Bill, named after Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, who was shot during Hinckley’s assassination attempt, was passed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The bill mandated background checks and required a waiting period after the purchase of a handgun. Has this piece of legislation affected conspicuous change in the rate of violence? Not evidently.

The prevalence of violent media has only increased. The difference between efforts like gun control or increased mental health awareness and the discouragement of violent media is that, while the U.S. government and NGOs have made efforts to ensure the former, the prevalence of violent media has been left essentially unregulated. Left unchecked, violent media could eventually ingrain itself into American culture.

Though incredibly idealistic, an industry-and culture-wide commitment to move away from media that glorify violence is needed to prevent the proliferation and normalization of violence. A more manageable approach is to provide fact-based data proving the connection between violent media and aggression to schools and parents, who influence what media kids consume. If we bring attention to this correlation and it is appropriately addressed, perhaps we will finally see a downward trend in violence in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of New York Times.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to “Grand Theft Auto.” It should have referred to “Halo” and “Diablo II.” 

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Christina Kirk

Christina Kirk is the Editor-in-Chief of The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: Institutions & Policy and international relations.

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