The photos we don’t see

When former police officer Stephen Spainhouer rushed to the scene of a mass shooting at an Allen, Texas, outlet mall last week, he came upon a battlefield. Bloody, torn bodies were scattered on the ground next to the dead killer and his assault rifle. A little girl seemed to be hiding next to a bush, but when Spainhouer turned her over, “she had no face.” He tried performing CPR on other victims, but “the injuries were so severe there was nothing I could do.” Hours later, cellphone images of the disfigured dead began circulating on Twitter. No mainstream publication, including this one, would publish such photos, for many reasons: the need for family consent; preserving the dignity of the dead; the sensibilities of readers. But by not showing what mass shooters do to human beings, do we make it easier to be numbed to the slaughter? If Americans were repeatedly exposed to images of children with their faces blown off, would they still accept that “nothing can be done?”

Images have great power; they can reach into hearts and minds in a way words often do not. When Emmett Till’s mother allowed publication of photos of her late son’s mutilated face in 1955, the revulsion galvanized the civil rights movement. Other photos have also marked turning points in history: the 1972 image of a naked, 9-year-old Vietnamese girl burned by U.S. napalm; the 2004 photos of Iraqis humiliated and tortured by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison; the video of a police officer with his knee on the neck of a pleading, dying George Floyd. What if we’d seen what an assault rifle did to the 20 first-graders and six adults in Newtown? (Some of their bodies had to be identified by DNA.) Or the 19 kids and two teachers methodically executed in Uvalde? Or the 26 churchgoers massacred in the pews at Sutherland Springs? Would their gruesome deaths still be written off as the regrettable but necessary price of “freedom”? 

This is the editor’s letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

When former police officer Stephen Spainhouer rushed to the scene of a mass shooting at an Allen, Texas, outlet mall last week, he came upon a battlefield. Bloody, torn bodies were scattered on the ground next to the dead killer and his assault rifle. A little girl seemed to be hiding next to a bush,…

When former police officer Stephen Spainhouer rushed to the scene of a mass shooting at an Allen, Texas, outlet mall last week, he came upon a battlefield. Bloody, torn bodies were scattered on the ground next to the dead killer and his assault rifle. A little girl seemed to be hiding next to a bush,…