Should we see their faces?

After the slaughter in Texas, some suggest that gruesome photos of young victims might spur our inert nation to action.

June 11, 1963: A buddhist monk protests the war in Vietnam by setting himself on fire in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

Graphic photos of death, such as this Buddhist monk immolating himself in Vietnam in 1963, have caught public attention. But do they really lead to change?

Keystone/Getty Images

It was nearly 40 years ago, in the mid-1980s. A woman called me at the Daily Journal in Wheaton to say her kindergartener had been raped by the janitor at his Montessori school. She called police.

“I expected them to show up with their sirens blaring,” she said. Instead, nothing happened. The man wasn’t even charged; it’s hard to build a criminal case on the testimony of a 5-year old.

I found this out while writing a weeklong series on child sex abuse in the western suburbs, speaking with therapists, victims, even a molester in prison. I stopped by the office of Brian Telander, then head of the DuPage County state’s attorney’s criminal division, to discuss the case.

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On his desk was a large photograph of people gathered together. At first glance, it seemed like a family Christmas portrait from Sears. Then I saw the blood. Telander saw me staring, and turned the picture so I could get a better look. A dead woman sprawled on a bed, her dead children piled around her.

That image flashed in my head for years, especially when coming home at night. It returned after the slaughter in Uvalde, Texas, when people began urging that photos of the slain children be used to try to jolt America from its awful inertia on gun safety.

“There must have been some really gruesome photos taken as part of the investigation in Uvalde,” writes reader Cathy T. “If the politicians who refuse to listen to reason and act because of the blood money they receive from the NRA were forced to view photos of the mangled bodies of the children and teachers who were gunned down, do you think they might be sickened enough to do what needs to be done?”

Good question. Maybe. History is studded with instances where shocking photographs stir the public. Those pits of naked bodies at Auschwitz. Monks setting themselves on fire to protest Vietnam. And the prime example, Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi, his body dumped in a river. His mother insisted on an open-coffin funeral, and photos of his battered, bloated face energized the civil rights movement.

At Emmett Till’s funeral, his mother, Mamie Mobley, pauses at her son’s open casket.

At Emmett Till’s funeral, his mother, Mamie Mobley, pauses at her son’s open casket.

Sun-Times file photo

So ... a good idea? Share the crime scene photos of children who will inevitably be slain by the next gunman? That would seem a more dynamic step than fluttering our feeble thoughts and prayers.

Maybe not. I’m not convinced it would do any good. It might only further debase a society already unmoored and floating away from its anchoring norms and practices. Sensitive people are already stricken, watching our nation sink inexorably toward whatever dark destiny awaits us. Such gruesome images are just as likely to provide grist for the storm-ravaged, Jupiter-sized ball of toxic malice continually raging on social media. Antisemites glory in those grim holocaust photos. They think they’re funny. Grief-ravaged parents might make the agonizing decision to release a photo of their precious, butchered child, only to be taunted by his exploded face forever. I’d say that’s a certainty. And nobody would be any safer from guns.

People revert to form. The heartbreaking photo of a drowned Syrian boy, face down in the sand, drew attention to the plight of refugees in 2015. But Americans didn’t fling open their doors to welcome immigrants.

Since we started in Brian Telander’s office, I thought we’d end there. I phoned Telander, now a judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit, and explained why I was calling, that picture of a crime committed in 1982.

“I can close my eyes and see it, unfortunately,” Telander said. “It just sticks in my mind. The picture still haunts me. It’s something you never forget.”

Judicial discretion prevented Telander from publicly commenting on the wisdom of publicizing such photos. And honestly, I don’t have a pat answer. Blowing up color photos of mangled fetuses and holding them on 5-foot-tall posters along Madison Street sure seemed to help the anti-abortion crowd get their way. Maybe such displays, of first graders with their heads half shot away, would be the push we need to take some tiny incremental baby step, such as banning large-capacity magazines. Or maybe it would just be opening another Pandora’s Box, only to further dismay those people who can still think and feel. You never unsee that stuff.

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Maybe, just maybe, a national effort with the power of President Biden and the White House behind it can bypass congressional inaction and finally end the bloodshed.