Everyone in the country watched in horror the reports of Derrick Birds dreadful killing spree in Cumbria. It prompted all sorts of questions, not least what might make an ordinary man go berserk in this terrible manner? The shooting sports often get the blame for such incidents when they involve guns (though axes, knives and buses have been used in mass killings as well, not to mention bombs made from materials such as hair bleach and diesel fuel). We have, however, been fairly well treated by the third estate in the wake of this latest multiple murder.
There seems, moreover, a willingness to look deeper, and, notably, there appears to be some acceptance that the post-Dunblane bans on legal handguns failed in their primary purpose handgun crime did not go down (indeed, there were more than 4,000 incidents last year).
Whats the real cause? I believe that television, cinema and the new media may bear a partial culpability for incidents such as the one in Cumbria. There are other factors (including social alienation), but the Internet and virtual violence in various forms have been associated with many recent amok murders. Jeff Weise, who shot 14 at Red Lake Senior High School and elsewhere in Minnesota in 2004, was known as Blades 11 on the web and was obsessed with zombies and aliens. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine killers, had an AOL website and made death threats on it (which brought him to police attention). He also made strange videos with his co-perpetrator at Columbine, Dylan Klebold.
The two most recent Finnish spree killers, Matti Juhani Saari who killed 11 at Kauhajoki vocational college in western Finland in 2009 and Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who killed nine in 2007 at Jokela High School, were connected with a web group that exchanged information about school shootings on YouTube.
It is also apparent that many amok killers have been interested in, and sometimes obsessed by, violent films. I submitted to Lord Cullen evidence at the Dunblane Inquiry that the average rental video at that time (1996)
had 13 killings in it. He was sufficiently interested to get his secretary to ask me for more information. The cinematic body count may be even higher now
and we have computer gaming to consider as well. Action films and gaming have become very intense and hyper-real. We have come a long way since the Lone Ranger shot the bad guy with a silver bullet in the last reel. The viewer or player can become the perpetrator now.
Derrick Bird watched the Steven Seagal movie On Deadly Ground before going out on his rampage. This film genre typically starts with something awful and violent happening to the hero or his family and friends. A revenge motive is created and a killing spree sanctioned. Some modern movies of the Tarantino type dont much bother with plot, they simply show killing for the sake of it turning it into some sort of perverse blood art. Psychologists in the meantime have again and again suggested, against protestations from broadcasters, that this sort of material is harmful. The American Psychological Association is quite clear on the matter. Professor Andrew Sims, a former-president of the Royal College of Psychiatry, once observed: There is now vast anecdotal evidence associating the portrayal of violence with violent behaviour and more than 1,000 papers linking violence in the media to actual behaviour.
Then, of course, there is that politically incorrect counsellor of old common sense. Dustin Hoffman, a veteran of Straw Dogs, himself noted after amok killings in Dunblane and Tasmania that we now put murder and torture to music and call it entertainment. Should any of us be surprised that the sort of evil rubbish that is commonly produced has evil effects? According to one writer, by the age of 13, the average American child has virtually witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence. Is this normal? Is it right? Of course not, the media itself must take responsibility for some of the wicked consequences of their profit-fuelled output.
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