Today’s New York Daily News cover shows yesterday’s murder of an CBS reporter in Virginia from the perspective of her killer. It’s horrific, graphic, and gruesome—and it’s important that everyone looks at it.
Reading about gun violence isn’t enough. A shooting is a visual tragedy. There’s a muzzle flash, bullets, a wound, blood, and bodies. When we see an upsetting image, our brain draws on tens of thousands of years of evolutionary training for a proper response. We are flooded with chemicals that make us feel the badness of what we see, so that we can adjust our behavior accordingly. Maybe that means running away from a tiger, or maybe it means passing gun control legislation. But horror is healthy and normal, and means your brain is working as intended. It’s a useful response, because it might convince you—it might force you—to viscerally react to our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. If people see photos of Alison Parker being effortlessly slaughtered by a disgruntled former co-worker with an easily obtained firearm, maybe they will conclude that guns are devices of horror and easy death. If so, it will be worth the discomfort. It’s a nice fantasy, but you can’t pretend that discomfort is optional; feeling like shit is a necessary part of being alive.
But let’s take a step back and address the arguments against the Daily News cover: 1) That publishing the images is “giving the murderer exactly what he wanted,” and 2) It’s tasteless, indecent, and offensive.
Vester Flanagan committed this horrible act because he wanted the feeling of power that comes with killing people and getting attention for it. He plainly laid out his motives on Twitter immediately after he murdered two people. It’s fair to say that he relished the attention he received before killing himself, but we’ve already given Vester Flanagan what he wanted. He hated his two victims, and he wanted them dead, and so he bought a gun and shot them until he killed them. He gave himself what he wanted, with the help of insanely lax gun laws that permitted a disturbed man to get a gun in the first place. Now that he’s dead, his hopes and desires cease to exist along with the rest of him—you can’t give a dead man what he wants any more than we can deprive him of it. I’m sure he enjoyed the hysteria his Vine videos and Facebook uploads caused in the wake of the bloodshed, but that’s irrelevant now.
(There’s also the fear that granting exposure and attention to the killer inspires copycats. The absurd hypothetical of a copycat killer motivated by imagery alone is little more than speculation—mass shooters are motivated by the deeds of mass shooters, not their press alone. Besides, the best way to prevent a similar crime from happening in the future is to make it as hard as possible to get a gun, not to hide images of that gun.)
The second argument against publishing images of a murder that happened in real life appeals to our sense of common decency, a mixture of earnest personal discomfort and “think of the children” moralizing:
In practice, the objection looks like this:
New York kids on summer break, walking around their neighborhoods, are going to see that Daily News cover at every bodega and newsstand.— Philip Bump (@pbump) August 27, 2015
I won't share the image, but the New York Daily News cover today is a shameful pile of trash. Everyone involved should feel ashamed.— Stephen Pulvirent (@SJPulvirent) August 27, 2015
NY Daily News is on every street corner in New York. Kids walking to school tomorrow will see that. I hope bodegas refuse to put it out.— Molly Knight (@molly_knight) August 27, 2015
The “protect our kids” argument assumes that children in 2015 have no means of media consumption other than print newspapers, which is a pretty funny thing for two writers to say on Twitter. It’s also a red herring: the fact that Moral Twitter is simultaneously concerned about the children of New York being exposed to the cover while loose on summer vacation and seeing the cover on their way to school shows how phony this argument is.
There’s also the obligatory claim that such images are exploitative, that they feed on human tragedy for economic gain, whether it’s a newspaper cover or the internet “clickbait” canard. This too is off the mark—literally all news coverage of tragedy profits from that tragedy. It’s why Gawker’s traffic spiked yesterday, and why I imagine more people tuned into CNN all afternoon. This isn’t a reason to avert your eyes. CNN didn’t kill anyone.
Maybe the appeal to the safety of children and TV screens is a means of dealing with our own adult unease with graphic images of murder, which is an entirely understandable reaction. Upsetting things make us upset. Parents will be mad, yes—and they should be, mad that they have to raise kids in this fucked up gun-filled world. Be mad about it! You’re right to be mad. But don’t mistake the picture of the man holding the gun for the paper that printed it.
But where were these scolding schoolmarms and moralizers 14 years ago, when a tragedy on a far vaster scale was repeatedly and unavoidably thrust under our noses? Were they too shocked by these newspaper covers to even speak, or had they not yet turned into pearl-clutchers because Twitter mass-morality didn’t exist at the time?
You’re giving the killers exactly what they want! (In this case literally true, by the definition of terrorism)
What if the schoolchildren see!
Yeah, what if? What if children (and their parents) are forced to confront the fact that guns are a horrible force of destruction, killing, fear, and mayhem? What if everyone sees an image that makes them uncomfortable and upset because the world is uncomfortable and upsetting? We should be uncomfortable! Be upset! Feel like shit this week!
If someone is mad at you and you both live in America, it’s very easy for that person to get a gun and murder you with it. That fact should scare you, every single day, until we do something about it. Pictures will help.