Photos of the blood-soaked back seat of John F. Kennedy’s limousine, with crushed rose petals on the floor, also got around. But the photos that have affected me the most — photos that didn’t circulate widely and surfaced on the internet long after JFK’s assassination — are from his autopsy.(1) They show the young president as the victim of a grisly murder. Part of his head has been blown away, and there is a gaping, bloody hole at the base of his throat, where another bullet passed through. His eyes stare upward, open and blank.
Photographs of murders and other atrocities force people to decide how much reality they want to absorb. If JFK’s autopsy photographs had been released in 1963, would they have had a greater impact than the poignant, wrenching images of his wife’s suit? It depends on how you define “impact” — and how the uses and abuses of photography come into play.
The massacre that left 19 children and two teachers dead in Uvalde, Texas, has also launched a debate about how much of a tragedy’s reality is suitable for public consumption, even though no crime-scene photos of those victims have been released. Still, sorting through hypotheticals about the pros and cons of disseminating graphic images from the shooting, as many thoughtful people already have, is essential to memorializing and responding to what happened.
Much of that debate has focused on the news media’s responsibilities. Should photos of murdered children in Uvalde be published, or should the privacy of grieving families be respected? The wishes of families come first. The Kennedys were trying to preserve their dignity and memories when deciding which crime scene photos to release, just as the Uvalde families rightly are today.
At any rate, when it comes to the impact of photos, legacy media isn’t the most important actor in the gun debate. It may have been decades ago, before the internet and social media arrived. Gun-control advocates can now launch messaging campaigns on social media that expose the grotesque realities of gun violence without trespassing on the privacy of victims and their loved ones.
In that context, the “impact” of graphic photos also doesn’t have to be defined by whether it changes gun policy or people’s minds in the short term. If we’ve learned anything about violence in the U.S., it’s that too many Americans have too much tolerance for other people’s suffering. There’s no quick fix for that.
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.
Jacqueline Kennedy in a bloody dress evokes sympathy more than horror, perhaps. Her husband’s shattered head evokes horror, because the violence he was subjected to is so evident. Emmett Till’s mother left his casket open at his funeral, so mourners and the media would be forced to grapple with something horrible, too. That helped set the civil rights movement in motion. Horror may spur people to action more directly than sympathy.
Gun violence needs to be seen and understood as horrible and unacceptable, just as carnage from genocide, lynchings and other obscenities is unacceptable. And photos from mass murders need to do more than elicit sympathy, without dishonoring the dead, if they are going to spark the kind of outrage that eventually brings change.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Why America Doesn’t Know How to Stop School Shootings: Julianna Goldman
• How to Start Solving America’s Gun Culture Problem: Carmichael and Wilkinson
• America’s Allies Just Don’t Get Its Gun Obsession: Lara Williams
(1) I don’t know how the autopsy photos found their way onto the internet. The National Archives has the originals and it says it has never released them. Neither the federal government nor the Kennedys have contested the authenticity of the autopsy photos on the web.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering U.S. business and politics. A former editor and reporter for the New York Times, he is author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.”
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