In the wake of a mass shooting we feel a desperate need to know "why?" so we can get to "how"—how can we keep this from happening again? When someone shoots up a school, a mall, or an office, people on the left usually blame lax gun laws, and recommend a fix of stricter gun laws. On the right, people are apt to blame it on cultural factors—violent video games and films have sickened the culture, glorifying wanton violence and desensitizing young people to its effects. Loose gun regulation is not a cause of the massacres, but our best defense against them.
But this idea of blaming the media is an oldie and a baddy. First, practically, where would we draw the line? If we managed to ban trigger happy games like Doom, Call of Duty, and Halo, what would we do about violent films like Saving Private Ryan or equally gory classics like Homer's Iliad? Should we edit the kills out of Shakespeare's plays?
Second, the evidence that violent media promotes violent behavior is actually pretty shaky. Violence is a great—perhaps the great—staple of the entertainment economy. As a society we guzzle down huge amounts of fake violence in television shows, novels, films, and video games. And yet, a determined fifty year search for real-world consequences of fictive violence hasn't found conclusive evidence of a causal linkage. Some researchers argue that the more violent media we consume, generally speaking, the more likely we are to behave aggressively in the real world. But other researchers disagree, picking studies apart on methodological grounds and pointing out that many hundreds of millions of people watch violent television and play violent games without developing the slightest urge to kill. As scientists like Steven Pinker point out: we consume more violent entertainment than we ever have before and yet we've never been at lower risk of a bloody demise. The more violent entertainment we've consumed, the more peaceable and law-abiding we've become.
Has violent media consumption actually helped reduce criminal violence? The notion isn't as perverse as it may at first seem. Critics of media violence seem to envision scenarios that allow us to vicariously revel in wanton savagery. But the messages found in most video games are strongly pro-social. Adventure-style video games almost always insert players into imaginative scenarios where they play the role of a hero bravely confronting the forces of chaos and destruction. When you play a video game you aren't training to be a spree shooter; you are training to be the good guy who races to place himself between evil and its victims.
The same goes for more traditional fiction formats like film, television, and novels. Virtually without exception, when the villain of a story kills, his violence is condemned. When the hero kills, he does so righteously. Fiction preaches that violence is only acceptable under defined circumstances—to protect the good and the weak from the bad and the strong. Some games, like Grand Theft Auto, seem to glorify and reward bad behavior (although in a semi-satirical spirit), but those games are the notorious exceptions that prove the general rule. What Steven King says of horror stories in his book Danse Macabre, broadly applies to all forms of imaginary violence: "The horror story, beneath its fangs and fright wig, is really as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit…It's main purpose is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen to people who venture into taboo lands. Within the framework of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile."
So how should we respond to mass shooting tragedies? First we must resist the reflex to find and torch a scapegoat—whether in the entertainment industry or the gun lobby. Even if we could keep unstable people from consuming imaginary violence, they could still find plenty of inspiration from the nightly news, history, holy scripture, or their own fevered dreams. And even if we were able to pass laws that kept guns out of the hands of bad men (a tall order in a country with three hundred million guns in private circulation), how would we keep them from killing with improvised explosives or by plowing SUVs into dense crowds?
Second, hard as it is, we must struggle to keep these acts of terrorism in perspective. We worry a lot about mass shootings, but we are all in so much more danger from a simple traffic accident on the way to a school , a theatre, a political rally, than we are from gunfire once we get there. We’d save the lives of enormously more people by—say—focusing on highway safety than by putting guns in the hands of "good people", or rekindling culture wars over the role of guns and entertainment in American life. It’s cliché but true: when we overreact, the terrorist wins. When we overreact, we give the sicko meme of the mass shooting the attention it needs to thrive.
So here's what shouldn't worry us: fictional violence.
Here's what should: the way our very understandable pain and fear leads us to respond ineffectively to real violence.