Emmett Till's mother was right. After the horrific murder of her 14-year-old son in Mississippi in 1955, she decided on an open-casket funeral. "There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way," she said. "And I wanted the world to see." The graphic images of her son's mutilated body, printed in The Chicago Defender and Jet magazine, contained vastly more raw power than any verbal description could possibly have had.
We sometimes say that "words fail us," and it's true. Nothing we can say can pack the emotional punch of what we can see with our own eyes. For those of us who support a level of gun control in the United States equivalent to that in other advanced countries, it ought to be clear by now that facts and logic are not enough to change public policy on the issue. We need ugly pictures. Not the pictures of the sweet faces of the children of Newtown, Conn., before they were slaughtered, but the awful sights that so shocked the first responders.
I mentioned to one of Governing's writers that I'd been reading about civil-rights activism by African-Americans in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and that it surprised me a little because I'd always associated the movement with the 1960s. He looked at me and said, "Television." And, of course, that's correct. Televised images of attacks like the one on the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in March 1965, which left many of them bloodied and severely injured, horrified many Americans and "mobilized the conscience of the nation," as Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in Leadership in Turbulent Times. On the day of the march, known ever since as Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson ordered his attorney general "to work nonstop to draft the strongest possible bill," she wrote.
The power of pictures was demonstrated again in 1968 during the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive. Vietnam was called "the Living Room War" because of the way television brought its carnage directly into the homes of the American people in a way that was without precedent. In that context, the Tet Offensive, a series of coordinated attacks on nearly 100 towns and outposts, shocked the American public, which had been led to believe that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were being defeated and were incapable of launching such a major operation. "A sense of betrayal had descended upon the country," Kearns Goodwin wrote. Even though the war dragged on for several more years, the graphic images of Tet marked a turning point in public support for it.
I think that gun control has now become as emotionally charged and intractable as civil rights and the Vietnam War once were. The American College of Physicians was joined in 2015 by nearly 60 other organizations, including the American Public Health Association and the American Bar Association, in a call to address gun violence as a public-health threat. Last month, in Annals of Internal Medicine, the physicians' group issued a position paper with recommendations for reducing firearms-related injuries and deaths. The National Rifle Association responded with a tweet that read, "Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control."
The NRA was exaggerating, but that edition of the journal did contain several articles, letters and editorials on gun control. Doctors, who have seen the carnage, want it stopped. I have little doubt that most of the rest of us would react the same way. Daniel Wasserman, the head rabbi of a Pittsburgh synagogue that neighbors the Tree of Life Congregation where 11 people were massacred by a virulently anti-Semitic gunman in October, told a New York Times writer that "unless someone is a soldier in a war zone, I defy anyone to tell me they've seen what I just saw." We should see what he saw. Wasserman went on to say that he knew who one victim was because he recognized the hair on a piece of skull. We should see that too.
News organizations, law-enforcement agencies and medical professionals are unlikely to publish the images of the bloody, mangled bodies that gun violence produces. But husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, can do what Emmett Till's mother did. They can insist that we see the result of our weak, ineffective and poorly enforced gun policies. They can find ways to publish the pictures in all their gory detail.
Some might say this would disrespect the dead. I can think of no more respectful way to treat the dead than to allow the loved ones of those who have been slain to show what actually happened to them. If we think these images are too awful to see, then we should change the circumstances that create them.
Mamie Till-Mobley died in 2003 at the age of 81 and was buried near her son. Her monument reads, "Her pain united a nation." May the pain felt today by the loved ones of the victims of gun violence do the same.
NOTE: This column has been updated to correct a reference to the name of the National Rifle Association.