A 41-Year-Old Cover That Could Run Today

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

This afternoon, flipping through Atlantic cover art from decades past, I stumbled across a chilling image. In big letters, framed by folksy illustrated guns: Our Indifference to Violence. This was the cover of the magazine 41 years ago this month:

The story is about Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Fuguate and the murder spree they went on in Nebraska in 1958. More broadly, the piece is about how fear can grip a community and what happens to people when it does. In Lincoln, Nebraska, people decided to arm themselves. Here’s an excerpt:

The pair filed into the living room, smelling of beer and brandishing loaded rifles; they had shotguns in the car. And pistols. Gene’s buddy wore his pistol concealed, strapped in a holster to his sturdy chest. His pockets bulged with shells. They’d volunteered to join Sheriff Karnopp, who was broadcasting openly for a posse. The sheriff gathered, Gene told us later, every local lush from every bar in downtown Lincoln. Some had never held a gun before. The sheriff armed them all; he had to.

The writer, Marilyn Coffey, finds herself some years later watching a film adaptation of the 1958 murders: Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Coffey concludes:

Our view of violence is as unemotional as the neat, round, clean, cinematic bullet holes left by Charlie’s gun. The movie successfully shields us from the impact of those days. Like our news media, it ultimately supports our indifference to violence. At last, indeed, we are entertained by it.