American violence is awesome in every bad way

People mourn in front of a makeshift memorial outside the Uvalde County Courthouse in Uvalde, Texas on May 26, 2022.

Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a school shooting rituals in America – another round of debate, usually between journalists, about whether to publish graphic photos. If people could just see what assault weapons do to young bodies, the argument goes, they would no longer tolerate policies that allow these killings. No, warns the other side, these photos would only cause more pain for the survivors and would have no impact on a divided society that goes from one gruesome entertainment to another in the blink of an eye.

This debate jumps to the surface of an American aberration: we passively tolerate high levels of violence while actively suppressing evidence of slaughter. It’s not just school shootings that we forbid ourselves to see — and I mean really see, not the thoughts and prayers equivalent of gazing sadly at memorial wreaths. It’s also the visual evidence of the more than one million people who have died of Covid-19 in the United States that we don’t see. It is visual evidence not only of the American soldiers killed in our eternal wars, but of the far greater number of civilians who perished (at least several hundred thousand in Iraq). And it’s the other forms of preventable death in our homeland that we don’t really see, including traffic violence and drug overdoses.

The scale of American violence is staggering in every way. The rate of shootings — school shootings, mass shootings, police shootings, accidental shootings, suicide shootings — tops the charts compared to almost every other country on our planet. The same goes for the other ways Americans kill and die; we excel in the fatal work of extinguishing each other. No factor can be blamed, but it should be noted that strong measures are constantly taken to prevent us from seeing what is being done. These measures have only intensified as our society has become more visual, with screens suitable for all aspects of the human experience except its final act. As photographer Nina Berman explained to a New York Times reporter a few days ago, “For a culture so steeped in violence, we spend a lot of time preventing anyone from actually seeing that violence. Something else is going on here, and I’m not sure it’s just that we’re trying to be sensitive.

UVALDE, TEXAS – JUNE 01: Law enforcement officers obstruct the view of members of the press during the joint funeral of teacher Irma Garcia and her husband Joe Garcia on June 01, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.  Irma Garcia was killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School and her husband died days later.  Wakes and funerals for the 21 victims will be scheduled throughout the week.  (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Law enforcement obstructs the view of members of the press during the joint funeral of teacher Irma Garcia and her husband Joe Garcia on June 1, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

There is a curious thing about this visual vacuum: it requires an aggressive act of construction to exist. Let’s look first at school shootings.

Several obstacles prevent us from seeing graphic photos of school shootings. The first is that victims tend to be inside their schools, which are crime scenes that police isolate from reporters. Even after the work of collecting evidence is complete and the cleaners are called in, journalists are kept away. Law enforcement agencies make their own photos and recordings of these sites, but these are strictly owned and sometimes protected by law. Even if graphic photos become available – and it’s rare, if any – news outlets are hesitant to publish them, due to concerns about privacy, ownership and reader criticism.

One of the few graphic photos circulating comes from Columbine in 1999, when a photographer from the Rocky Mountain News flew in a helicopter over the school on the day of filming and took a picture of a student’s body on the ground outside, not far from a policeman and several students taking cover behind a car. While the newspaper photos won a Pulitzer Prize, reaction was mixed locally. “The hostility against the press got so bad that people were throwing snowballs containing pebbles at our photographers,” noted John Temple, the newspaper’s editor at the time. Imagine what would happen today if an equivalent photo were published from Uvalde: the bad faith brigade would find a hundred ways to distract us from an honest discussion about what it conveys.

An aerial view shows students and police crouching behind a car outside Columbine High School in Littleton Co., Tuesday, April 20, 1999. The body of an unidentified person appears top center on the sidewalk.  Two young men in black fatigues and trench coats opened fire on the suburban Denver high school on Tuesday in what police called a suicide mission, and the sheriff said 25 people may have been killed.  (AP Photo/Rocky Mountain News, Rodolfo González)

During the Columbine High School massacre, an aerial view shows the body of a student lying on a catwalk as students and police take cover behind a car in Littleton Co., April 20, 1999.

Photo: Rodolfo Gonzalez/Rocky Mountain News via AP

But let us remember that government and public hostility to graphic photos extends far beyond our schools, to battlefields thousands of miles away. Particularly since 9/11, the US military has maintained strict bans on journalists taking pictures of wounded or dead soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones. In recent years, the army has found the most effective solution of all: it almost bans journalists from embarking on combat operations. Even photography of military coffins has long been banned. The Pentagon has a growing memory of images of people killed in US bombings, but that’s only in exceptional circumstances, like the furor over the drone killing of an extended family. in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2021, that we see one of this.

The warzone photo economy is not controlled by the military alone. News agencies have been reluctant to publish photos of dead soldiers. In 2008, freelance photographer Zoriah Miller was expelled from his military post in Iraq after posting a photo of a dead American soldier on his blog. Even after that, no major publication took an interest in his rare photo. The New York Times eventually published it, but for an article on military censorship. One of the most haunting photos of the Gulf War, showing the corpse of an Iraqi soldier being burned to death, has not been released by any major media. “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to watch it,” said Kenneth Jarecke, the photographer.

The essence of America – its raw capitalism – is at least partly to blame. What would readers and advertisers think? More than a million people have died of Covid in the United States, but there has been precious little footage of those people as they perish in hospitals. I spent a lot of time last year researching why we saw so many pictures of doctors and nurses, but almost none of the people whose lives were lost. One of the main reasons was that hospitals were concerned about legal liability and the damage images of death and mayhem could do to their brands. “There was no benefit to them showing the apocalypse and what it looked like,” said Dr. Craig Spencer, global health director in emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Having patients all over the emergency department on oxygen canisters and people intubated will not look good for your hospital.”

I think the familiar debate over whether to publish graphic photos of school shootings – or of Covid victims or war wounded – has lost its urgency. Like so many other things, it has become a ritual we dutifully adopt after another outrage occurs. I think the answer to the debate is clear – yes, posting the photos is the right thing to do, we should be aware of what our scourges of violence bring. I also think it’s now more likely that if the media gets the right picture of Uvalde or the upcoming school shooting (we won’t have to wait long, this is America) they’ll release it. But it will be from a position of desperation. They have tried everything to change mentalities; that’s all that’s left.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter so much anymore. It’s not just, as reviewer Susie Linfield wrote the other day, that photos rarely bring about the kind of change their followers hope for. What’s different now is that on the life and death issues we face – shootings, wars, Covid, opioids, road rage – the horror of what has been allowed to pile up over the decades is so vast. How can leaders begin to back down? We are not talking about a modest correction. America without its violence – without the factions that don’t mind violence and even derive some benefit from it – would be a new country. There’s a way to get there, but it’s going to take a lot more work and discomfort than posting a shocking photo.

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