‘Show Us the Carnage,’ Continued

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

For recent items about gun massacres, and the public response, please see (starting with most recent):

In this installment, readers respond to the proposal in a previous item that the news media should become much less “restrained” and considerate, much more blunt and shocking, and instead “show us the carnage”: Run pictures of the corpses of children and other civilians after gun attacks.

From a reader in Kentucky:

What prompts me to write was the "show us the carnage” headline of your recent column. That headline likely resonated with anyone who lived in Louisville in 1989, when Joseph Wesbecker killed eight coworkers and wounded many more with an AK-47 at the Standard Gravure printing plant.

The plant was owned by the Bingham family, which had also owned the Courier-Journal until a few years prior. The next day, the Courier ran the attached photo on the front page, along with other photos of injured (and possibly dead) victims. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Archive screen shot, via Atlantic reader.

The picture is quite difficult to find online now, but it prompted a substantial amount of backlash against the Courier and ultimately a lawsuit by the family of the victim (which the Courier won). I asked a few people about this over the weekend and, to a person, everybody remembered this photograph. It had an impact.

There's no question images like this can affect public opinion. While I'm a bit young to remember Vietnam in real time, the resistance to showing even flag-draped coffins today is generally recognized as an effort to hide the cost of our seemingly endless wars (my wife pointed out that this is not necessarily true of the carnage that those wars cause to others overseas). Even this weekend, The New York Times declined to publish even an edited version of the video supporting its two-page story on the death of four soldiers in Niger. Today's helmet-cam is Vietnam's AP photographer.

I certainly can't say that I want to see photographs like this every day when I pick up the paper, but stuffed animals, candles, and crosses are not the real story.

From another reader, about the media deciding to be more brutally shocking (about brutal events):

I too have thought about the need to set aside concerns of media decorum and, with survivors' permissions, show all the brutal realities of mass shootings. A stark contrast is needed. In view of their dead, bloody bodies, the public should come to know something of the persons who were.

Even after the phrase “shithouse countries” was uttered, many media were knee-jerk reluctant to repeat it or to take pains to say its verbatim usage in the reporting would be one-time only, although doing so, without prelude, would have been entirely newsworthy and non-gratuitous.

And finally for today on the “carnage” theme, a complaint about “carnage-lite”:

A couple notes about the reader recommendations to "show the carnage" and to have a "change of heart."

The former echos what my senior high school English teacher said about violence on television and in the movies during the 1970s, that it wasn't real. Show real violence, he speculated, and people will be repelled and repulsed.

I'm not certain he was right, but he may have had a point; the carnage-lite media coverage we now get after mass shootings doesn't seem to be having a deterring effect.

And there's a kind of precedent for this too, though I hesitate to even bring it up--so much as even an allusion to the Third Reich is reacted to with the outcry "Overreaction!" But I think "show the carnage" was exactly the point of forcing German civilians to visit concentration camps during denazification. Collective guilt can have a powerful effect. But only if it's collectively accepted that there's something to feel guilty about.  

Maybe this collective guilt can be the catalyst for that change of heart. After all, the civic heart has been changed about all sorts of things. It's now in the process of changing about sexual harassment, though I think automobile safety and especially smoking are more instructive recent examples.

In my lifetime, smoking has gone from being the marker of masculinity to more the tag of a weak will. The very idea of an airplane flight so much as hinting at the smoke-filled back room where Warren Harding became a presidential nominee is today all but unimaginable. This, however, didn't happen overnight, and not all by itself either. Government action helped to foster this change of heart, the kind of meddling that's derisively referred to as social engineering by those who fear the nanny state. And indeed, I'm certain that there are people who smoke on principle, because they have the right and freedom to do it. I wonder how many people own guns for this very same reason.

But I'm encouraged by this: In the last 50 years, the pendulum has swung so far on tobacco that the public sight of once ubiquitous smokers is now limited to those few in ever-shrinking designated smoking areas. So perhaps in time we as a people will indeed have a change of heart about gun violence and ownership.