It is so easy to kill another human being.
I’m sure anyone who has actually taken a life will tell you that’s not true, but all the media we consume makes it look easy. The good guys kill the bad guys in movies, on TV, in video games, on the actual news, and they don’t flinch. They’re doing the right thing. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again. It’s bravery.
In 2017, it is also just physically easier to kill another human. We all know how simple it is to get a gun, how that gun could easily be an automatic rifle. Fifty people in five minutes. That’s how easy it is to kill someone else. That’s how easy it is to kill dozens of someones. Go to your local gun shop, get a rifle, find a hotel room window, walk into a school, a nightclub, a movie theater and put pressure on a tiny curve of metal to kill an entire crowd.
They’ll tell you this is the outlier — most gun owners would never turn their weapon on another person. That’s true. The majority of gun deaths are suicides and accidents (and that’s an entire other conversation that needs to be had). But that doesn’t change the fact that we live in a world where it is easy to kill a person. We’ve made it so easy.
I work in media. I’m a fiction writer — I write an audio drama podcast about people with supernatural abilities in therapy. In an episode this past spring, we had our first major incident of violence within the world of a show. Character A was threatening Character B’s loved one and Character B — overwhelmed by fear and the nature of his empathic ability — assaulted Character A. It was an uneven match, resulting in a bloody beatdown that made it look like Character B, a 17 year old boy, may have killed someone in his protective rage. We spent most of the season finale dealing with the emotional consequence of this — the guilt and fear that Character B felt over what he had done while all the other characters there tried to figure out how to save Character A’s life, despite him being the antagonist.
I’m proud of this episode. It was a challenge to write and perform and my actors did an incredible job. The episode was received really well, sparking a range of emotions and reactions.
As the summer and our hiatus went on, I received more and more emails from men — always men — saying they didn’t understand why Character B was so upset. In their eyes, he did the right thing. He was protecting someone he loved and these men who were emailing me said they would do exactly the same thing and feel no remorse. If someone threatened their wives, their children, they would have no compunction killing that person. They found my portrayal of a teenager feeling conflicted over losing control and gravely injuring someone “unrealistic”.
If people don’t like my writing or the way I depict certain issues, that’s fine. Maybe I just completely missed the mark on this one. But I pay close attention when I notice a specific group taking issue with something because there’s usually a reason. All these messages were from grown men, often self-identified as left-leaning men who don’t like violence (I don’t think we get a lot of right-wing folks as listeners, our podcast is incredibly gay). A lot of these men have families and I get it, I do — I like to think that I’d jump in and do what I needed to protect someone I love. Character B didn’t have a lot of choice and he probably saved his loved one by doing what he did. That’s not what’s in question. That’s not what bothers me about these messages.
What worries me is the idea that we shouldn’t feel guilt over committing acts of violence, even ones that may be necessary. When I would explain my side of things to these men, they would usually come around and realize why beating someone to a pulp might have psychological consequence for the person doing the beating. But I had to walk them there. It occurred to me, as I mentally shuffled through the various depictions of violence I see in media, that this was a new concept.
If the hero of a story commits an act of violence, it is good. If the villain commits an act of violence, it is bad and the hero kills the villain and goes out to celebrate. But it is not that simple. It is not that easy.
Violence creates trauma in every person it touches. But we forget this. We forget because there is a mass shooting every other week and our bodies can only carry so many scars of national grief. We forget because we see Jack Bauer, James Bond, the Kingsman, carry out acts of heroic gun violence on our screens. We become desensitized. The trauma of violence becomes such a part of us that we begin to mistake it for hardened courage. We begin to believe that there’s a good and bad violence and the good gun owners would stand up and do the right thing. We use this narrative as a shield against making concrete changes to our laws that could protect our citizens: the “bad” violence can continue to exist because we have people who would carry out the “good” violence.
We are all complicit in the normalization of violence. I’m not saying that’s what led to the Vegas shooting or any other shooting — this isn’t about that. This is about the systemic lack of consequence for violence. Jack Bauer gets a medal; Congress sends their thoughts and prayers and go home for recess. Without consequence, violence — to some — begins to look like a solution.
There’s very little I can control in this world. But I can control the kind of entertainment I create. I’m under no illusions about making “art” or making something “important”. But I am making something that hundreds of thousands of people consume. And that matters. 24 matters. The dozens of new military shows on TV this fall matter. I’m not saying we need to take violence out of our entertainment. I’m saying we need it to count. We need it to have consequence. Especially since it seems that, with each new shooting, the consequence of human life seems to matter less and less to the people who could actually make a difference.
If Congress won’t stand up and do something, we have to. If you’re a creator of media, I implore you to think about what you’re creating and what it’s telling your audience. Do you need that gun there? Is there a fallout if the trigger is pulled? If you’re a consumer of media, please think about what you’re consuming and what it’s telling you, however subtly. Think about what you’re showing your children, especially your sons. I don’t know if a shift in entertainment will do anything. But I do know that what we see in media affects the way we feel about the world around us. Guns should terrify us. Instead they‘ve become a symbol of American life and a clown is the thing frightening movie-goers. The world is upside down.
It is so easy to kill another human. We have to make it harder.