The true horror of mass killings remains abstract if we never see images of the full, body-shredding carnage
For several decades beginning in the 1950s, driver education classes in the United States included screenings of “shock films”—documentary shorts, narrated in police drama style, created to bring the reality of high-speed collisions home to young drivers. Names like Highway of Agony, Mechanized Death, and Red Asphalt were meant to terrify teenagers into driving safely.
When I took driver’s ed, the film was Signal 30, named after the police code for a highway crash fatality. The course was considered terrifying because of that true-life film, with an unnerving police-drama narrator and a screen filled with grotesque images of actual mangled, bloody, sometimes charred corpses immediately after traffic accidents, along with other screaming, moaning victims.
I happened to miss that day of class for some reason. At the time, I was relieved to have not been subjected to it. But looking back, I’m not sure avoiding that kind of confrontation with reality was a good thing.
I’m thinking about this again after reading in the New York Times and OnlySky about how Americans for long decades have been routinely shielded from the full, unsanitized horrors of violent public events—the inglorious corpses of war, traffic accidents, and now, mass shootings.
When was the last time you saw honest images of any of these disturbing events on TV or online? Unless you were around for the Vietnam War, you probably haven’t. Regular coverage of the bodies of dead soldiers being unloaded from transport planes, not to mention front-line television crews bringing the horrors of war into American living rooms, was credited in part for turning public opinion against that war. It was with Vietnam in mind that the administration of President George W. Bush banned news coverage and photography of returning dead soldiers. Unsanitized images of atrocities of every kind appear infrequently online and only briefly before being taken down. Commercial media treats such images like downed power lines with livewires sparking.
So the question is this: If most of us have never seen the actual, viscerally-appalling results of these human catastrophes, how can we accurately process and usefully comprehend them? Does shielding people from true horrors mask their full significance?
Is ignorance the opiate of mass killings?
In “The wisdom of Karl Marx applied to school shootings,” Bob Seidensticker suggests that in characterizing religion as the “opium of the masses,” Marx was saying faith had the effect of anesthetizing people against the potent realities they faced in life.
“But here’s Marx’s point: That’s not a good thing when it masks the underlying problem,” writes Seidensticker:
Opium isn’t doing you any favors if, by reducing the pain of a broken leg, you’re no longer motivated to see a doctor. And religion isn’t doing you any favors if, by reducing the misery of life, you don’t take steps to correct the problems in your life.
Step back to take in all of society, and religion’s soothing the misery of injustice, poverty, and hunger is doing the people no favors if it reduces their drive to fix the root causes of those social problems.
If we hide from people the full emotional impact of mass shootings—masking their horrors and dangers from the public, as well as the long-term misery they inflict on survivors—how will we know how truly terrible they are or how far we should go in trying to prevent future occurrences?
The media are complicit in hiding the dead
Americans’ ignorance of the comprehensive dangers of lawless and irresponsible driving is exacerbated by news media. Driver training films aside, a consensus policy became embedded in the news media to not show the horrible aftermath of vehicular crashes with fatalities—except for crumpled and crushed cars, which don’t really tell the full story.
The same is true of mass shootings. You have to wait until a movie comes out to be able to view a fictionalized version of the actual carnage—and even movies are generally tamer than the actual reality. Mostly we just imagine what happened in real life.
The carnage of the massacre of 20 first-grade children and six employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, was “the worst I know of any of my colleagues having seen” over 30 years of practice, said Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner Wayne Carver II in a press conference after the shooting.
But what does “the worst” mean to anyone who hadn’t seen what Carver had?
He pointed out that each of the deceased victims had been shot “between 3 and 11 times” in the head, torso, and extremities, some at point-blank range. The rounds traveled 2,000 feet per second, an incomprehensible amount of released energy. What did those bullets actually do when they ripped into those bodies?
Nearly 20 years later, the shooter at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas used expanding hollow-point rounds to murder 19 children—a type of ammunition that constitutes a war crime if used on the battlefield, precisely because of the overwhelming devastation it wreaks on human flesh and bone.
Online ad servers redouble the complicity in hiding the consequences of pro-gun policies. Google AdSense, which serves more than 38 million websites (including this one) specifically prohibits “shocking content” including “Blood, guts, gore…crime scene or accident photos” on pages that carry their ads.
If all Americans had viewed unabashed, full-color images of the unimaginable carnage at each and every mass shooting, with all the unmitigated, evil destruction of often tiny bodies, would we still have notoriously lax gun laws? What if after each shooting, all lawmakers were led into a room where they viewed unfiltered images of each mutilated body? Might we have stricter laws akin to Australia and New Zealand? Those nations almost immediately passed strict national firearms statutes after a single massacre in each country. We endure hundreds every year in America followed by inaction.
We’re still expansively inacting.
News photos scrubbed of victims are an injustice
In a New York Times article late last month about the recent rash of mass shootings in the U.S., feature writer Elizabeth Williamson wondered, if photos of the massacres were widely published, whether things just might end differently this time:
Grief and anger over two horrific mass shootings in Texas and New York only ten days apart has stirred an old debate: Would disseminating graphic images of the results of gun violence jolt the nation’s gridlocked leadership into action?
From the abolition movement to Black Lives Matter, from the Holocaust to the Vietnam War to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, photographs and film have laid bare the human toll of racism, authoritarianism and ruinous foreign policy. They prompt public outcry and, sometimes, lead to change. But the potential use of these images to end official inertia after mass shootings presents new, wrenching considerations for victims’ families — many of whom adamantly reject such an idea.
Images of mass killings would reveal the true horror
Documentary filmmaker and journalism professor Nina Berman believes pictures could be shown “without dehumanizing the victims,” that would still reveal the true horror of what an AR-15-style assault rifle can unleash. It is a disturbing story, she says, “that has not been seen or fully told.”
Embedded in the Times article is a photo of a classroom after Taliban zealots armed with AK-47s attacked a Peshawar, Pakistan, school in 2014, massacring 134 schoolchildren. A color photo by Reuters photographer Fayaz Aziz shows huge splashes of blood, like red Rorschach tests on the floor, as if dumped from buckets.
But notably, the picture is devoid of actual victims.
“For a culture so steeped in violence, we spend a lot of time preventing anyone from actually seeing that violence,” Berman told Williamson. “Something else is going on here, and I’m not sure it’s just that we’re trying to be sensitive.”
Another journalism professor, Susie Linfield, who has written a book titled The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, believes that, if not everyone, at least politicians should see the unvarnished images of the dead in mass shootings, as a prompt to political action.
Her own experience has brought home to her the visceral truth honest imagery can convey. She wrote in a New York Times guest essay on May 31:
I know that stoning people to death is barbaric. But I never understood just what it entails — the slow, cruel process by which a defenseless human being is degraded and destroyed — until I saw a series of photographs taken by Somali photojournalist Farah Abdi Warsameh, which depict the stoning execution of a man accused of adultery by the insurgent group Hizbul Islam. While some charge that viewing such pictures is voyeuristic, these images made me face the terror, the blood and the sheer cruelty of this practice — one that, astonishingly, has not yet been tossed into the dustbin of history.
Photographic images can bring us close to the experience of suffering — and, in particular, to the physical torment that violence creates — in ways that words do not. What does the destruction of a human being, of a human body — frail and vulnerable (all human bodies are frail and vulnerable) — look like? What can we know of another’s suffering? Is such knowledge forbidden — or, alternately, necessary? And if we obtain it, what then?
Nation ‘should see’ the horrific effects of assault rifles
Although she has mixed feelings about full public disclosure of images of mass-murder victims, Linfield thinks the recent carnage may be a tipping point. She spotlights the murder by an 18-year-old gunman of 19 students and two teachers on May 14 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. He carried an AR-15-style rifle, a handgun, and more than 300 rounds of ammunition. Wrote Linfield:
In the case of Uvalde, a serious case can be made — indeed, I agree with it, that the nation should see exactly how an assault rifle pulverizes the body of a 10-year-old, just as we needed to see (but rarely did) the injuries to our troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
I looked online for any detailed full reports on the presumably sickening injuries sustained in American mass-shooting incidents in recent years.
Couldn’t find any, much less photos showing those injuries.
Most of us, although we think we know, simply have no clue what unspeakable depravity actually plays out in these tragic killing fields.
So we grip our guns tighter, with extra belligerence and bravado, effectively allowing the horror show to replay. Again and again and again.
Maybe it’s time—perhaps long past time—to do what Signal 30 tried to do many years ago: show us exactly what true human horrors look like.