Mass Shootings: America needs an Emmett Till moment

Americans are disconnected from the real carnage these weapons of war produce

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Back in 1955, young Black people like 14-year-old Emmett Till were routinely murdered by white people all over America, usually with no consequence whatsoever.

Emmett Till was kidnapped by two white Mississippi men, brutally tortured, murdered and his mangled body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. (And the white men who did it, and the white woman who set it off with a lie, never suffered any consequence.)

His mother, Mamie Bradley, made the extraordinarily brave decision to show her baby’s mutilated face with an open-coffin funeral in their hometown of Chicago.

Jet magazine ran a picture of it, which went viral, invigorating the Civil Rights movement as it horrified the nation.

That picture made real the horrors of white violence against Black people in America for those who were unfamiliar, or just unwilling, to confront it. 

After seven mass shootings in seven days, you’d think that America today would understand the horrors of gun violence. 

We’ve all heard about Newtown and Stoneman Douglas and Las Vegas, but have you ever seen pictures of the bodies mutilated by the .223 caliber bullets that semi-automatic assault weapons like the AR15 fire?

The odds are pretty close to zero; most Americans have no idea the kind of damage such weapons of war can do to people, particularly children.

But perhaps we need to learn.

In the 1980s, egged on by partisans in the Reagan administration, America’s antiabortion movement begin the practice of holding up graphic, bloody pictures of aborted fetuses as part of their “demonstrations” and “vigils.”

Their literature and magazines, and even some of their advertisements, often carry or allude to these graphic images. 

Those in the movement will tell you that the decision to use these kinds of pictures was a turning point, when “abortion became real“ for many Americans, and even advocates of a woman’s right to choose an abortion started using phrases like “legal, safe and rare.“

Similarly, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of 9-year-old “Napalm Girl” Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked down a rural Vietnamese road after napalm caught her clothes on fire was published in 1972, it helped finally turned the tide on the Vietnam War.

Showing pictures in American media of the result of a mass shooter’s slaughter would be a controversial challenge.

There are legitimate concerns about sensationalizing violence, about morbid curiosity, about warping young minds and triggering PTSD for survivors of violence.

And yet, pictures convey reality in a way that words cannot.

America’s era of mass shootings kicked off on August 1, 1966 when Charles Whitman murdered his mother and then climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas and begin shooting.

The vast majority of our mass killings, however, began during the Reagan/Bush administrations following the 1984 San Ysidro, California McDonald’s massacre, the Edmond, Oklahoma Post Office shooting of 1986, and the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre in Killeen, Texas in 1991. 

We’ve become familiar with the names of the places, and sometimes the dates, but the horror and pain of the torn and exploded bodies has escaped us.

I believe it’s time for America to confront the reality of gun violence. And all my years working in the advertising business tell me that a graphic portrayal of the consequences of their products is the greatest fear of America’s weapons manufacturers and the NRA.

We did it with tobacco and drunk driving back in the day, showing pictures of people missing half their jaw or mangled and bloody car wreckage, and it worked.

And now there’s a student-led movement asking states to put a check-box on driver’s licenses with the line: “In the event that I die from gun violence please publicize the photo of my death. #MyLastShot.”

This isn’t, however, something that should just be tossed off, or thrown up on a webpage.

Leadership from multiple venues in American journalism — print, television, Web-based publications — should get together and decide what photos to release, how to release them, and under what circumstances it could be done to provide maximum impact and minimum trauma.

But Americans must understand what’s really going on.

President Obama put VP Joe Biden in charge of his gun task force, and Joe Biden has seen the pictures.

Here’s how The New York Times quoted President Biden today: “‘Jill and I are devastated. The feeling — I just can’t imagine how the families are feeling,’ he said, at times struggling to find the right words.

Obama himself, after seeing the photos, broke into tears on national television.

Doing this will take leadership.

And, of course, there must be a Mamie Bradley: a parent, spouse or other relation willing to allow the photos of their loved one to be used in this way.

In 1996 there was a horrific slaughter in Tasmania, Australia, by a shooter using an AR15-style weapon, culminating a series of mass shootings that had plagued that nation for over a decade. 

While the Australian media generally didn’t publish the photos, they were widely circulated.

As a result the Australian public was so repulsed that within a year semi-automatic weapons in civilian hands were outlawed altogether, strict gun control measures were put into place, and a gun-buyback program went into effect that voluntarily took over 700,000 weapons out of circulation.

And that was with John Howard as Prime Minister - a conservative who was as hard-right as Ronald Reagan!

In the first years after the laws took place, firearms-related deaths in Australia fell by well over 40%, with suicides dropping by 77%. There have only been two mass killings in the years since then.

The year 1996 was Australia’s Emmett Till moment.

America needs ours.

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