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‘Let them see what they’ve done’

Timothy L. O’Brien writing for Bloomberg Opinion asks the question of whether Americans should be shown images that bring home the brutality of school shootings.

Jacqueline Kennedy made a point of wearing her pink, blood-spattered Chanel suit on the plane back to Washington after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Aides encouraged her to change. She refused. ‘Let them see what they’ve done,’ she insisted.

O’Brien goes on to say:

But showing people the reality of gun violence — consistently, responsibly and without flinching — matters over time. And anyone hoping to end gun massacres in the U.S. should consider whether most of the images they encounter after shootings actually force them to grapple with reality or simply airbrush it.

He’s right. An unwritten rule in western media is that it is sometimes ok to show dead bodies, but only those in far away lands, or those who feel sufficiently different to ourselves — whether Mexican drug cartel members, or washed-up refugee children. That in itself demands reflection.

We know change comes from visuals that shock us into action — or rather, shock us out of inaction. The open casket of Emmett Till, the Greensboro sit-ins, the murder of George Floyd. Three huge moments in the racial justice movement that would not have had the same impact were it not for imagery that demanded change.

I was in Uvalde last week. I heard accounts of what happened that will stay with me forever. But it’s this vivid recollection, told to CNN by an 11-year-old girl, that moved me the most:

[11-year-old survivor Miah Cerillo] said after shooting students in her class, the gunman went through a door into an adjoining classroom. She heard screams, and the sound of shots in that classroom. After the shots stopped, though, she says the shooter started playing loud music — sad music, she said.

The girl and a friend managed to get her dead teacher’s phone and call 911 for help. She said she told a dispatcher, “Please come … we’re in trouble.”

Miah said she was scared the gunman would return to her classroom to kill her and a few other surviving friends. So, she dipped her hands in the blood of a classmate — who lay next to her, already dead — and then smeared the blood all over herself to play dead.

Miah will relive that scene in her mind for the rest of her life. It will change her. America would be changed too if it was forced to see such horrors. Police reports described piles of bodies. Parents had to do DNA tests in order to help identify the mutilated victims.

The descriptions should be enough. As someone who has lived here for seven years, and spent considerable time in parts of the country seen by outsiders as beyond help, I can tell you Americans are good. Americans are compassionate. They care about their communities and their families. But that instinct has been hijacked by forces that know political tribalism means votes.

As I type, President Biden is outlining sweeping new gun control policies. Inexplicably, he faces an uphill battle to put them into law. Confronting Americans with the reality of what happened in Uvalde — and the 20 mass shootings that have happened since — may be the only way to release this country from the grip of its most deadly disease.

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