#289 – Dick Bernard: Vicarious Violence a Threat? Yes.

The below commentary of mine appeared on the opinion page in the December 2, Minneapolis Star Tribune. You can also read it as printed in the STrib here. I was responding to a commentary by George Will of the Washington Post which appeared in the Nov. 28 newspaper.
I was gone most of the day and late into last evening so didn’t see the on-line comments on the column till late in the evening. Most interesting to me was that the always-anonymous on-line comments about the column in the newspaper were generally negative and most of the most negative ones seemed to unanimously agree with each other (which is very unusual, even on-line, almost like an orchestrated response); while the in-person comments I heard from many random people I saw at various events yesterday were 100% positive.
I apparently struck some kind of nerve. Bottom line: I like the kids I wrote about; I think this is a topic that needs a lot of civil and rational discussion; the vast majority of people don’t act out based on things like virtual violence, but we never have to be concerned about the vast majority…it’s the tiny minority that cause the huge problems.
The headline writer for George Will’s column on video games subheads the column “Today, it’s video games. In another era, it was comic books. So, pass a law? Pshaw.”
Oh, were it so easy to dismiss a very serious societal problem.
Will is exactly one year younger than I am, so he and I come from the same generation.
Here’s a counterpoint, doubtless replayed tens of millions of times every day across our nation.
A few days before Wills column appeared, Thanksgiving Day, we were at dinner at a relative’s home, and there was a certain amount of competition for the large screen TV. A video game ultimately won out over football, at least for a while.
Two of the kids, a girl, 7, and a boy, 11, were playing a realistic video game reenacting battles of World War I and II. Dutifully they worked to take out the enemy with their hand-held remote controls.
It was all so normal, including the scorecard at the end, where the one who had the most “kills” (planes shot down) and “deaths” (victims of war) was the winner. The kids were learning how to win, through death, but with no threat to themselves. Death was a casual act, meted out on somebody else, tallied on a score sheet on a television screen.
I thought back to the days in the 1940s when I was the age of those kids. Where I lived, those days were long before television, and yes, there were comic books, but not yet common for people in my station in life. What Will and I experienced as kids, he buttresses with selective anecdotes about then-experts. He then makes these people his fools: vintage Will.
I remember visiting my grandparents ‘back in the day’, and a favorite find was the very dog-eared copy of Flash Gordon – outer space futuristic fiction where, indeed, people were zapped by things like ray guns. But it was all in the deep dark distant future, and we had to read about it. We weren’t doing battle like those two little kids I was witnessing Thanksgiving Day.
A few days before Thanksgiving we were waiting for our plane home from Salt Lake City. The plane was delayed due to weather, and there was extra idle time in the boarding area.
Near the window were two older men, waiting with wheelchairs to assist disabled passengers who’d soon be deplaning.
They were conversing about war, these two, mostly through the lens of “Saving Private Ryan” and John Wayne movies.
One guy tended to dominate the conversation, the other nodding gravely, as the talk turned to things like War on Terror topics. “They don’t follow the rules of warfare like in the old days”, the one said, observing that the enemy now melts in among us, and can be anywhere.
“We just have to be able to go in there and take them out. If some civilians are killed, too bad.” Doubtless he was just a nice family man.
His civilians, of course, are a nebulous them who dress funny, or look a little different, or talk a different language. They aren’t persons, they’re things, like a bunch of animals in someone’s sights. “The ends justify the means.”
So it goes in our society where violence is a staple of our lives, nothing more than a casual act.
There may not be a place for another law, but for our society to survive as a civil place, we need to pay a whole lot of attention to sanctioned and impersonal violence against others.