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There are times I’ve been in the British Museum when the thought has struck me, in the Egyptian mummy rooms for instance, that I am surrounded by visibly dead people. A similar moment – “the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork,” as William Burroughs called it in the introduction to Naked Lunch – came on a visit to London’s Imperial War Museum last week.

The museum is reopening today after a six-month, £40m revamp. Its impressive centrepiece is a 14-room set of galleries devoted to the first world war, marking the conflict’s centenary. There are armaments everywhere – machine guns, field artillery, grenade launchers, a monstrous British Mark V tank that terrified German soldiers – alongside sober depictions of the slaughter they caused, all those tens of millions of lacerations, amputations, deaths. But one exhibit in particular stopped me dead, so to speak.

It was a cabinet containing homemade clubs that soldiers used on trench raids. The primitive nature of the implements, bristling with nails or ridged iron, brought home the brutal fact of combat more vividly than any of the industrial weaponry on display. One club belonged to Private Harold Startin of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. “Its first victim,” the caption went on to say, “was a German sergeant killed by Startin in July 1915.”

Its first victim! So this object had swung through the air in Private Startin’s hand and smashed into a man’s skull more than once. I was looking at an instrument of death. At that point I noticed that the soundtrack filling the galleries, a rumble of shells exploding and trenches collapsing, lacked one sound that would have rung out over the battlefields: the screams of the wounded and the dying.

How rarely we are made to confront the real consequences of the violent imagery that surrounds us. The cultural tapestry of punch-ups, shootings and explosions goes unquestioned, other than when the bloodletting is held to be too violent. Then there is an outcry – but the outcry conspires to obscure an underlying acceptance.

When you pause to think about the message being transmitted, the situation takes on a surreal tint. Travellers on the London Underground are not allowed to see cigarette advertising – it might kill us, you see – yet on an average journey we’ll be exposed to scores of men (they are almost always men) bristling with firearms on film posters. I once found myself looking at the poster for 2 Guns, the 2013 action film starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, with my eight-year-old daughter. Why, she asked, bemused, are these two men pointing guns? Another of Burroughs’ frozen moments.

You might say that violence has always been endemic to popular culture. Think of all those 1920s gangster films or 18th-century ballads celebrating highwaymen. True enough: but it’s getting worse. A US study last year found that gun violence in films suitable for teenagers had tripled since 1985 while overall film violence had doubled since 1950. The bestselling music performer in the 2000s was Eminem: enough said.

Computer games thrive on travestied versions of the sort of scenarios I found myself imagining in the IWM. Shoot’em ups prevail, many themed around war. The latest instalment of the popular Wolfenstein series, which imagines life if the Nazis had won the second world war, has sparked tabloid outrage not for its ultra-violence but because – shock! – it shows the Beatles singing in German in occupied Britain.

At the worst extreme, snuff movies (films of people being killed), once the province of novels by James Ellroy or Bret Easton Ellis, have become discoverable to anyone with an internet connection and a sociopathic imagination. The disconnection is mimicked by drone warfare, controlled by operatives thousands of miles from the people they’re blowing up. Unlike the glass of the vitrine holding the trench raid clubs at the IWM, the computer screen does not encourage empathy.

But there is a curious adjunct to all this cultural violence. According to certain metrics, rates of actual violence are dropping, a phenomenon the neuroscientist Steven Pinker addressed in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The theme is picked up on in this summer’s blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which explores, with unusual intelligence for a big-budget Hollywood film, the question of whether war or co-operation are innate in human nature.

Are we hard-wired to help each other or to compete, murderously if need be? I’ll leave you to find out which side of the fence the film chooses. But if the former turns out to be the case in real life, then all the violent imagery surrounding us will prove to be background noise, without meaningful consequence to our behaviour. But I’ll still wish all those film posters with guns were consigned to the cinema equivalent of the Imperial War Museum.


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