CAMBRIDGE, MA—The desensitization of U.S. citizens to acts of brutal violence—an ongoing process by which Americans become increasingly inured to savagery and mayhem—is nearly complete, sociologists at Harvard's Media Research Laboratory reported Monday.

American Focus

According to a study by the prestigious think tank, less than 3 percent of Americans retain a capacity for shock, revulsion and dismay when faced with violent dismemberment, beheadings, or other displays of sadistic, inhuman cruelty. The human mind's ability to be disturbed by such atrocities, the study found, will most likely vanish from the American psyche by the summer of 2001, if not sooner.


"Within a short time, the sight of a blood-soaked man fleeing in terror, a hysterical woman begging for her life as she is beaten by attackers, or even a tight close-up of a shotgun-blasted, sucking chest wound on the evening news will no longer provoke any response beyond a dismissive yawn," said Media Research Laboratory director Dr. E. Phillip Kindler. "What we had long considered a normal reaction of panic, fear or sorrow—the negative emotions traditionally elicited by such horrific displays—is very nearly a thing of the past."

Kindler then illustrated his point by showing an audience a video clip of a man's head exploding from the 1980 David Cronenberg film Scanners. Though the footage was considered deeply disturbing at the time of the film's release, it evoked little more than derisive mutters of "boring" and "totally fake-looking" from the assembled crowd. One audience member was so unmoved, he consumed an entire chili dog during the once-gruesome scene.

The phenomenon of brutality-desensitization, Kindler said, was once exclusively the domain of soldiers who experienced such horrors firsthand. In recent years, however, it has spread to all sectors of society, causing a paradigmatic shift in the way Americans absorb and process images of violence.


In the wake of tragedy, police remove massacre victims from the Columbine High School parking lot.

This numbing effect, which began with the ascent of mass media around the turn of the century, has been accelerating exponentially in recent decades, aided by such genocidal atrocities as Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as skyrocketing crime rates at home. These factors, combined with the continued merging of entertainment and violence, from the still-popular Faces Of Death videotape series to action figures with lifelike spilling viscera, have altered public perception to the point where, in a recent study, 17 percent of participating 9-year-olds fell asleep when shown footage of Iraqi soldiers shooting Kurds in the head.

"When I was 11, I saw the famous chest-bursting sequence from Alien on HBO during a slumber party at a friend's house," the study quoted one 30-year-old test subject as saying. "At the time, it totally freaked me out. But today, even a kids' videogame like Mortal Kombat makes that scene look tame by comparison."


In many sectors of American society, particularly urban settings, the brutality-desensitization process is already complete. "To be honest," Kindler said, "it's been complete since the late '80s in most inner-city communities, where daily shootings and stabbings blend seamlessly into rap lyrics and action movies depicting them."

However, the study found, the process is now nearing completion in even the most privileged suburbs.

"Right now," Media Research Laboratory associate director David Alland said, "there are 15-year-olds in Littleton, CO, whose faces are more glazed over than those of hardened Vietnam veterans."


According to Alland, while the extraordinary public reaction to the massacre at Columbine High School seems to indicate a rise in Americans' capacity to be horrified by senseless violence, precisely the reverse is occurring. What we are actually witnessing, he said, are the final stages of brutality-desensitization.

"As images of panicked children running for their lives, their arms held behind their heads, are replayed 24 hours a day for millions of people on the major news networks, society will experience more backlash desensitization than a thousand Keanu Reeveses in black trenchcoats could ever possibly generate," Alland said.

What's more, Alland said, with U.S. lawmakers responding to the tragedy with calls for increased militarization of school zones, including greater police presence and the arming of teachers, the process will only accelerate.


"In early-stage desensitization, we see a regression to ape-like responses of adrenaline and aggression, in which the violence becomes thrilling instead of horrifying," Alland said. "But this is not what we're finding in our research. Instead we're finding a lot of late-stage desensitization, with Americans, unlike apes, exhibiting no emotional reactions at all."

"Far from a nation of bloodthirsty beasts," Alland said, "I foresee the America of the future as a society of emotionless, robotic drones incapable of empathic response. The bad news is, these drones will regularly go haywire and blow each other away with automatic weapons. But, on the positive side, nobody will really mind all that much when they do."