The Children Strike Back

By From the July 1999 issue

It is now much more respectable to draw a link between violent entertainment and violent acts, Thompson believes. Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, for example, have stressed the culture's culpability. Thompson recently debated actor-producer Rob Reiner—whom he calls "the Meathead" after Reiner's role in "All in the Family"—who insisted this is no time to be judgmental. "Wrong," says Thompson. "This is exactly the time we need to be pointing fingers."

Thompson is doing more than that. He is one of two lawyers suing video-game manufacturers on behalf of three families who lost children in the 1997 school shootings in Paducah, Kentucky. Video games, which Thompson calls murder simulators, "trained the murderer, Michael Carneal, how to kill and to enjoy killing," he argues. Thompson, while admitting his case faces sizable obstacles, is very much enjoying what he sees as a shift against the violence industry.

Some of this joy is vengeful in origin. "If Time Warner does not stop distributing to America's youth entertainment that glorifies violence," Thompson warned a 1992 Time Warner stockholder meeting, "then eventually parents whose children are harmed thereby will sue you for damages." This elicited much laughter, he recalls, "but they're not laughing now."

The United States Supreme Court has given the green light to a suit that alleges the movie Natural Born Killers was partly responsible for a string of killings. Thompson —who alleges that the film The Basketball Diaries contributed to the Paducah killings—is buoyed by the court decision. Even Bill Clinton has given the conservative Thompson reason to believe that his time has come. In his weekly radio address on April 24, Clinton praised the work former Lt. Col. David Grossman, a psychologist who has argued that violent video games "teach young people to kill with all the precision of a military training program, but none of the character training that goes along with it." It was Grossman who initially convinced Thompson that there is a causal link between violent video games and the Paducah killing.

“The murderer had never shot a handgun in his life," Thompson says. "Yet, as a fourteen-year-old obsessed with point-and-shoot video games, Michael Carneal walked into his school and opened fire. He fired eight shots; all shots found their mark. Five were head shots, the other three were upper torso shots. This is phenomenal marksmanship."

Carneal used a shooting technique "that is totally unnatural and counter-intuitive," Thompson added. "He pulled the trigger at one target, only once, and then moved to the next target, pulled the trigger instantly, and moved on to the next target. The natural, untrained instinct is to unload one's gun into a target until it hits the ground."

Thompson says he recently discovered that representatives of companies that market the point and shoot games were providing free samples to schools. "Lamar Alexander put the issue pretty well," he later said, "when he suggested that teacher pension funds should divest themselves of stock in these companies, because otherwise they are subsidizing their own targeting."

Since filing the suit, Thompson has appeared on the Discovery Channel, "60 Minutes," NBC's "Today" (twice), CNN, ABC's "World News Tonight," and "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," among others. "Many of these media people have become advocates for our position," he says. "They too have been unnerved by Littleton."

Which may explain why the WB network yanked the season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" because of a violent scene (albeit with a monster) at a high school graduation. As chief executive Jamie Kellner noted, "Our decision is also born out of a deep sense of responsibility to the WB's loyal young audience." The episode was replaced by one called "Band Candy," which was described by a television writer as one "in which all the parents start acting like kids and the kids like parents."


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About the Author

Dave Shiflett is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.