I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies…and their carcasses will I give to be meat for the fowls of the heavens and for the beasts of the earth…. And I will make this city desolate…. And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend.
—God, explaining his plans for the errant children of Judah; Jeremiah 19:7-9
“Culture of carnage,” anyone? when Joe Lieberman turned that alliterative phrase at a Senate hearing on September 13, he wasn’t thinking about the demented serial-killer god of the Old Testament. He was, instead, reviling the movies, music, television programs, and other media that, for their violence, sex, and uncomfortable subject matter, are said to be turning potential prom queens and kings into sluts and murderers, mostly murderers. Something, Lieberman said, had to be done about it—by law, if necessary—a sentiment given quick assent across the partisan divide. Here was an echo of arguments past: feminists against pornography; homosexuals against Dr. Laura; sex police against Internet sites where adults spin eroticized fantasies about young people. Of course, the First Amendment, but what about our bodies? What about our lives? What about our children? But…but…but… By a chain of such exceptions does the censorious impulse seek to justify itself, and always to misbegotten ends.
In this latest go-round, the violent-media-makes-violent-people theory has as little scientific basis as ever, and it has been met with a wave of counterargument. The studies most often trotted out to prove a causal relationship are unsupportable, inconclusive, or easily contradicted. Much as we might not want children to be exposed to steady doses of media gore—the nightly news, for instance—there’s no evidence that naughty is more powerful than nice when it comes to television’s special ability to work kids up into a froth. Some music might be disgusting, but then the First Commandment of pop has always been “Shock your parents.”
There’s more media in the U.S. than ever—and more violent media, whether print, visual, or virtual—yet violent crime is lower than it has been in years, including crime among young people. Fantasies of violence, like any other kind, are just that—fantasies. Referring to a popular video game, media analyst Judith Levine writes, in her persuasively documented pamphlet Shooting the Messenger: Why Censorship Won’t Stop Violence, “No killing is going on in the killing rooms of Doom.”
But the allure of violence for human animals, the propensity for it, are things too quicksilverish for studies and statistics to contain. “I’m drawn to you as to a crime,” wrote Osip Mandelstam in one of his most shattering love poems, as disconcertingly simple an evocation as might be found of the impulse to witness, possibly inflict, even to taste, pain. Blood sacrifice, murder, dismemberment, cannibalism: children, adults too, have been drawn to such crimes for as long as fairy tales have existed. Those who thrilled to the Brothers Grimm (“Look back, look back, there’s blood on the track!”) or the gruesome Baba Yaga stories of Russian folklore; those who played war or shoot-’em-up or, most cruelly, burned insects with mirrors or blew them up with firecrackers; those who as youths keened to Oedipus Rex and Macbeth and the most sanguinary tales in Lives of the Saints are probably no more twisted than those raised on sanitized stories and games. Shakespeare is technoworlds away from Terminator, but both were mass entertainments, and like all horror fantasies, both provide what the brilliant writer Marina Warner calls “ecstatic relief” from the terror of the real.
It’s the real that always gets elided in these debates. Quake II has never done anyone to death, but retired Army Lieutenant Col