Sandy Hook, Parkland, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Uvalde. These names are seared into the American consciousness, connected by unspeakable tragedy caused by gun violence. Survivors traumatized forever. A society paralyzed by inaction

The seeming inability—or unwillingness—of legislators to do anything substantive about this issue prompts an aching question, as suggested by former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson (and others): Do we need an Emmett Till moment where the public can see the horrific impact on the human body caused by military style weapons in our schools, our hospitals, our malls, our houses of worship and in our neighborhoods?

To even ask this question invites vilification. How dare I suggest that victims of such horrific violence—especially young victims—should carry the added weight of having their images released into the public domain? How can this be discussed rationally when there is such partisan division in this country over gun violence? In Buffalo, they were our grandmothers and in Uvalde, they were our children. In both cases—fragile bodies were ripped apart by weapons meant for the battlefield. Parents had to resort to DNA matches in order to identify their children.

How could I even consider showing horrific images of the victim? Don’t I realize that forces of exploitation—a la Alex Jones’s Infowars—would use these images for financial gain or to push wild conspiracy theories? How can I be so naive? And what good would it do? The video of George Floyd’s horrible death was shown over and over again and police reform legislation is still stalled in Congress.

But such soul searching led me to seek out thoughtful articles on the subject. Journalism professor and author Susie Linfield, in the New York Times, asks this pair of related questions: “What responsibilities does the act of seeing entail? Is the viewing of violence an indefensible form of collaboration with it? Is the refusal to view violence an indefensible form of denial?” She continues with questions about who owns the pictures, “the police, the F.B.I., the parents or the public? How [do we] balance a family’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know?”

And Elizabeth Williamson, also in the New York Times, speaks to ambivalence on both sides, citing two professors: First, Emily Bernard from the University of Vermont: “If the families say ‘I think we should show this,’ I think we should listen to them. But people who have access to those photos and are inclined to disseminate them have to ask themselves, who benefits? Is this going to enlighten us or offer any solutions, or is it just horrible?’

She then cites Jelani Cobb, incoming dean of Columbia University School of Journalism. “For all the political utility of these videos and these images, for all of their motivational usefulness in terms of getting people out into the street or clarifying exactly what is going on, I’m not at all certain that it’s ethical or right to display these images in this way.”

Still, there is a reason to show damage done by military-style assault weapons, as outlined in a helpful, though coldly matter-of-fact graphic description of these weapons by law enforcement analyst and former DC police officer Michael Fanone who came to prominence during the January 6 insurrection.

Fanone writes, “A bullet fired by an AR-15 travels at three times the velocity as one fired by a 9 mm handgun. And magazines that can feed dozens of rounds into the weapon in the space of minutes clearly were meant for use only on the battlefield…The bullet that comes out of the barrel of an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle can easily penetrate the target…But it also will go through the wall behind that person, and potentially through that room and into the next wall. That power and accuracy are useful for military purposes, which is obviously what they were designed for. But it’s far more power than should ever be in the hands of the average civilian…I can’t overstate how dangerous it is to have semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 in the hands of civilians.”

When parents of stricken children from mass killings are asked about using images of their loved ones to halt gun violence, they almost always demur. On Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked Tony Montalto whose daughter Gina was killed in the Parkland shooting, “Do people need to see this violence firsthand? And if that – is that something you’d be comfortable with as a parent?”

Montalto replied, “Personally, no, I would not be comfortable with that. It’s terrible to lose your child or to lose your spouse, especially in a school shooting, where they should be safe. I would not want those pictures of my daughter out there and made public.” 

According to Williamson, Leonard Pozner, whose son Noah was killed in Sandy Hook and who has devoted his life to battling conspiracy theorists who spread false claims that the Sandy Hook shooting was a government hoax is unconvinced that releasing his son Noah’s photo would have changed much. “Everything would just get amplified. Hoaxers will have more things to deny, absolutists will have more things to say — and people who are traumatized by mass shootings will be more traumatized.”

Linfield, after careful consideration of what publishing such graphic pictures will not accomplish, still claims, “Despite the very real dangers of exploitation and misuse that disclosure of the Uvalde photographs would pose, I myself would like politicians to view them: to look — really look — at the shattered face of what was previously a child and to then contemplate the bewildered terror of her last moments on earth.”

The horror of this conversation is almost too incomprehensible to even contemplate, and I hesitated to raise it, but, like living wills, perhaps each of us should make our wishes known to those close to us about how we would wish our image would be shown should we be victimized in such a crime. Sadly, it is increasingly clear that none of us are safe. Mass shootings can occur anywhere. Would I want images of my mutilated body shown if it would increase the chances of ending gun violence? Sadly, if we let our loved ones know our feeling about this grotesque subject, it will at least give survivors a clue as to how to respond in case of such an emergency.

The situation is quite different, but perhaps a lesson can be learned from Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the nine year old girl fleeing from a Napalm attack on her village duringthe Vietnam War. Kim tells of years of trauma and shame at having her naked, disfigured body shown around the world.

Kim says, “Growing up, I sometimes wished to disappear not only because of my injuries — the burns scarred a third of my body and caused intense, chronic pain — but also because of the shame and embarrassment of my disfigurement.”

As an adult, she founded Kim Foundation International, which provides aid to children of war. She began traveling to war-torn countries to provide medical and psychological assistance to children victimized by war. Regarding our current crisis, Kim says, “I cannot speak for the families in Uvalde, Texas, but I think that showing the world what the aftermath of a gun rampage truly looks like can deliver the awful reality. We must face this violence head-on, and the first step is to look at it.”

I wish I never felt I had to write this post. I wish our legislators, social influencers and community leaders would find the courage and creativity to end the carnage. But perhaps, Kim’s words are vital for a society desensitized to senseless violence: “the first step is to look at it.”

3 thoughts on “An Emmett Till Moment?

  1. Graphic depictions of mayhem on TV and video games get attention of some and profits for purveyors not questioned. But then thought of survivors of gun violence showing the truth of what happened to their loved ones is, on the other hand, questioned heavily.
    One makes money (and normalizes violence); the other could help bring long overdue change.
    Some Christians do depict the gory image of a crucified founder and few object for it is thought to drive growth of the movement and prove he was dead and thus sightings later became the basis for the new faith.

  2. Sad to say, I think you are right. The news swiftly moves on and and the devastation is so soon forgotten and nothing changes.

  3. Listened this morning (on NPR) to an account of a mother describing the wounds and remaining shrapnel in her son’s not dead but living body as she dresses those wounds – shrapnel which he will carry for the rest of his life. She was speaking to Congress. It made it real and brought fresh tears to my eyes. Maybe we need that and pictures to drive this home – because it has to stop.

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