'Show Us the Carnage'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

After a previous horrific massacre via AR-15, the one in Las Vegas last winter in which a single murderer killed or injured more than 600 people, readers wrote about that weapon and its history. For reference, those items were:

Now we have another massacre; more “thoughts and prayers” and other pious but empty rituals by legislators who will not do a single thing to reduce the chances of the next one; and more reaction from readers.

Can anything be done, by anyone or any organization, to stop the onslaught of gun violence? Readers suggest three approaches, involving: the media, the responsible gun-owning community, and the political opposition to the NRA.

Different media coverage. I mentioned yesterday the familiar cycles of news coverage: 24/7 updates, panels, and interviews by cable programs; explanatory pieces by big newspapers; snapshot photos showing victims when they were alive and happy, then respectful portraits of their families wracked by grief. What could be a different approach?

“Show Us the Carnage.” A reader, writing in after a different massacre, says that coverage is too respectful and tasteful:

The media needs to show Americans the truth.  Watching tonight's news coverage of the massacre, it was bizarrely possible to think of a mass shooting as a random event like a tornado that causes a community to rally together.  Thoughts and prayers for all.  Yet entirely missing from the coverage was the truth of what had happened.  No pictures of pools of blood.  No video of blown out brains.  No images of dead children in pews.

Just as the tide of public opinion against the war in Vietnam did not turn until images of the war reached into American living rooms, today's epidemic of mass shootings will not end until Americans see and share in the bloody experience.  Scalia's Heller decision will not join Taney's Dred Scott opinion in the ash heap of history until Americans are moved to action by indelible images from mass shootings of suffering and death.

So here is a plea to the media. Do not let decency standards shield us from this indecency.  Show us the carnage and do not let Americans look away from what the NRA's lobbying has wrought.

This reader is right, that photos made a difference in the Vietnam era. The recent Ken Burns / Lynn Novick Vietnam documentary series went into the detailed background of the two photos that ran on the front pages of most newspapers, and that anyone alive in that era can recall. One was of a nine-year-old girl running naked, and in terror, away from a napalm strike. The other was of a South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains (literally) of a North Vietnamese agent / spy. A decade earlier, the photo of the battered body of the lynched Emmett Till also revealed what had happened to him in a way mere words could not have done. And lest we forget: the black-eye photo of one of Rob Porter’s ex-wives,  Colbie Holderness.

Don’t Tell Us the Killer’s Name:

Your article did touch on the media's role in these shootings, but I believe that the media coverage is just encouraging  the next shooter who watches the scenes of crying classmates, horrified parents etc... and thinks about all the people that have wronged, or bullied him. The shooter’s name should never be used by the media.

Strike a realistically fatalistic note:

I share your despair and frustration. That said, I wonder if your publication, as well as the other mainstream media, should not adopt a new approach.

Just report the facts, not the outrage or the questions. Explain that you’ve said it all before and it does no good. Conservative politicians and the NRA have won. Repeat after the next killing. Repeat again. Repeat again….

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results…. The hopelessness is numbing.


Gun owners taking responsibility. In polls most gun owners say they support “responsible” use of weapons. (That certainly was my own father’s position: he trained as an auxiliary police officer and carried a pistol when making night time house calls as a doctor, but he stressed that everything about firearms needed to be approached with utmost care and gravity.) Some readers suggest that gun owners need to lead the effort for changed policy.

“Do you know any gun owners who support rational gun control?” A reader asks that question, and adds:

That’s what’s needed.

Learn a lesson from J Street taking on AIPAC.  I think a lot of gun owners would be for this.  A single spark can start a prairie fire!

Change of heart. Similarly:

One thing we are not seeing the slightest sign of: People who own these AR-15s (or like weapons) having a change of heart, deciding they really don't NEED such a firearm, realizing that by owning them they are actually setting a bad example and contributing to the problem, and who thus decide to forsake these things and surrender them to the police for safe disposal.

This by itself would not constitute a solution to the problem. It would change the whole psychology surrounding it, however, and could be the game changer that would allow us to start having a productive conversation about this whole issue of firearms.

I am not going to hold my breath while waiting to see if something like this will happen, for I have grown very fond of oxygen.

However, it would perhaps be revealing to ask ourselves: Why is it that we are NOT seeing such a thing anywhere? And why is it so outlandish to think that we might ever see it?


The political opposition. Mike Lofgren, who has a long background in congressional politics mainly working for Republicans, says that citizens and politicians who say they support gun control have to play as tough as Mitch McConnell and his allies do:

What you say about McConnell is all very true and well argued, but Democrats have more leverage on the issue than they think -- if only they would use brass knuckles  instead of powder-puffs.

They simply must, day after day, take to the House and Senate floors and say that Republicans in general, and McConnell, Ryan, and Trump in particular, would prefer to see school children massacred than face the wrath of the NRA. To repeat, McConnell and company would prefer to see kids murdered rather than annoy the gun lobby.

Brutal? yes. But is it true? Demonstrably. Etiquette enforcers, particularly in the media, would moan that Democrats were violating decorum, ripping asunder the fragile threads of civil society, and on and on.

Let them moan: the charge is true, and in any case, Trump (with the rest of the GOP following close behind) has so thoroughly demolished whatever standards of decorum had existed that accusations of incivility would be merely a hypocritical variation on media both-siderism.

I have argued before that any politically engaged American who wishes to oppose Trumpism and the attendant Republican racketeering will at some point have to get his hands dirty, just as principled pacifism was not a viable response to the rise of aggressive totalitarianism during the 20th century. The question is, are Democrats up to publicly calling a creature like Mitch McConnell an accessory to murder?

Because that's what it will take. To assume that anything less would be effective is to engage in magic thinking.

To close for today, another reader on decorum and politeness:

C.S Lewis once commented that "the greatest evil is now... conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices."

It is to weep.