Can the Image of a Dead Child Change Society?
Parents are once again identifying the bullet-ridden bodies of their children, while the typical firestorm of debate on gun policies and finger pointing on who is to blame dominates our national discussion. In the backdrop of these recurring debates are the vignettes of the young people lost, the promise of their lives extinguished in a brutal heartbeat, and the brave teachers and school staff who tried to protect their students. This time, however, I find myself thinking more about the parents of the murdered children.
The mothers and fathers who lost sons and daughters at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are experiencing the most difficult and unnatural thing we do as humans – walk our children to the grave. I have a special empathy with the Parkland parents. I have experienced the private agony of standing over a dead daughter’s body. I know the feelings of helplessness, the visceral sense of the unfairness of life, and the nagging doubt in the power of goodness, hope and ultimate purpose. I have experienced the anger you feel towards God, the universe, or however you understand the structure of reality, and the burning desire to take your anger out on someone or something that is responsible. I know the collateral damage of a child’s death: the multiple challenges occurring long after the funeral service and the way these test a parent’s ability to respond to these stresses and a sibling’s ability to cope. More importantly, I know that a “normal life” is something you watch as a bystander for a very long time, with a growing awareness that normal will no longer mean what it once did. To watch the dancing light of playfulness in my daughter’s eyes extinguished, and her infectious laugh silenced, is the most difficult thing I’ve ever endured in a very long list of challenges in my life. But, it could have been much worse.
The difference between my experience and the parents in Parkland is that the young dead body I looked over occurred after Sandi died of complications of a congenital heart condition. I find it unfathomable to imagine standing over her body on a hospital gurney, her young, tender flesh disfigured and mutilated by high-velocity bullets. Her once emotionally vibrant face frozen in an expression of terror. I cannot imagine how I would have made sense of her life or mine with the realization that her future had been stolen not so much by a mentally ill man. But, rather by a society that had been tone deaf for decades to its primary obligation to protect its children and to a parade of willfully negligent politicians. After a child’s death, you feel guilty about lots of things, but I think the most difficult thing for me to assimilate would have been my own tardiness in realizing that America’s approach to firearm ownership is a national health crisis and we can no longer protect our children without changes in our gun laws.
According to the Center for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2014, 497,632 citizens of the United States lost their lives at the barrel of a gun. This eclipses the number of deaths reported by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs for World War I (116,516) and World War II (405,399). Between 2012 and 2014, emergency rooms in the nation treated 5,790 children for a gun-related injury, with 1,297 dying. It is now estimated that 19 children a day are treated in ERs for gunshot wounds. We stand alone with these figures. Almost 91% of the young people killed by guns in the 23 highest-income countries in the world are from the U.S. We have the singular global distinction of allowing more of our children to die violently by guns than any comparable country. In a nation with a history of believing in American exceptionalism, this is a record that should elicit shame in all of us and elicit a social revolution. Yet, some of us, like Wayne LaPierre, the leader of the National Rifle Association, believe access to more guns and voting out of office anyone who questions that strategy are the real solution.
The issues surrounding guns and gun ownership are complicated, but suggesting that personal access to high-velocity, rapid-fire weapons made for war is not the immediate cause of catastrophic deaths in our children’s schools is way beyond absurd.
What will history say about this time in America’s life, a time in which an insufficient number of American parents and politicians felt motivated to demand a change in policy in order to protect our children? How can so many of us who are parents and voters attend candlelight services, read stories of the horrific details, and share comments of sadness and disgust at our water coolers and on our Facebook pages, but then settle back so quickly into the “normal” rhythm of our lives? Perhaps we need images to convince us, like radiologist Helen Sher’s metaphor of what she saw in doing a CT scan on one of the Parkland victims.
The Atlantic recently issued an article by Sher, who works in a Florida trauma center and has treated thousands of patients wounded by handguns. Sher recounts her horror at looking at the CT scan of a vital organ in the body of one of the critically wounded Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students hit by a bullet from Nikolas Cruz’s military grade AR-15. The radiologist said, the damaged organ “looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer.” When a trauma surgeon opened a similarly wounded patient in an emergency surgery, Sher added, there was nothing left to repair – the major organ had disintegrated and the trauma team stood by helplessly as the teenager bled to death.
The gruesome metaphor of a smashed melon suggests the inconceivably horrendous image the Parkland parents probably saw in their identification of the bodies of their children. I am somewhat overcome with empathy.
More than a few people are now calling for the publication of the gruesome images of gunshot victims to awaken public rage, much as Emmett Till’s mother decided to hold an open casket wake in Chicago for her son after he had been brutally beaten and murdered in 1955. Mamie Till, a hard-working single parent, grudgingly allowed her only child to go to visit relatives in Jim Crow Mississippi. The young 14-year-old Emmett was accused of making a pass at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, and was later kidnapped, beat, shot in the head and thrown in a river with a heavy object tied around his neck with barbed wire. Although the men killing Emmett were caught, they never served time, and the woman allegedly offended by the boy later recanted her charges that the youngster had done anything. Mamie Till wanted the world to see the ugliness of racism and the violence of Jim Crow, and so she somehow found the courage to display to the world Emmett’s bloated, distorted, and unrecognizable face. Publicized images of the boy laid out in his casket and his story are credited with helping to mobilize the Civil Rights movement. According to Louis Beauchamp, the director of the documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in part, because of Emmett Till.
I’m not sure gruesome photographs of young dead bodies will move our nation to action like it once did. We’ve had decades of video games and realistic cinematic images of violence to de-sensitize us, and we are so divided as a people in our assessment of fundamental issues that such a “shock strategy” may even harden positions on both sides, rather than open us up to a common cause. But, there are lots of other images in this debate that might shake the U.S. out of its moral slumber in relation to guns.
Parents losing children in Parkland are already giving interviews, speaking at town halls and joining thousands of other gun law activists in organizations created by people who have lost loved ones to gun violence, such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Sandy Hook Promise, Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, and Everytown for Safety. The Parkland moms and dads are becoming some of the nation’s most impassioned advocates for gun control laws for lots of reasons. And, if the image of parents in grief arguing passionately for changes in gun laws despite a dull-hearted political system is not enough, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are trying to launch a national movement reminiscent of the Birmingham Children’s March in 1963, a pivotal movement in civil rights when the news media captured images of children huddled against fire hoses and attacked by dogs set loose by law enforcement officers.
The Parkland activists will conduct a national school walk out on March 14, one month after the Parkland shooting, and another one on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine murders. In the meantime, we have the images of articulate and resolute adolescents on common sense gun control, like Parkland students Emma Gonzalez, Delaney Tarr, and Cameron Kasky, or aspiring journalist David Hogg, debating intelligently and insistently about their right to a future and their refusal to allow the culture to move on to another crisis until gun laws change.
The sensible gun law movement has not had a major legislative win, yet. But, grassroots organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers have demonstrated that it is possible to change the laws and culture, despite political inertia and powerful lobby groups capitalizing on the inability of citizens to mobilize around common sense change. Mamie Till, a deeply religious woman, reached beyond her inconsolable loss to see her son’s murder as an opportunity for change, not just a cause for grief. She lived to see Emmett’s death ignite a new kind of energy in the civil rights movement – parents, particularly mothers, galvanized to demand change in society until children no longer had to live in fear, and complacent politicians and voters moved to create a different kind of society. Such is the power of an image.
Let’s hope and pray we see such forces of change again. But, let’s remember we need to move beyond compassion and sorrow to solidarity with those demanding political action.