The Politics of Dead Children

Last week we saw what can happen when a photo of a dead child is used to make a political point. The photo, which appeared on the front page of the Washington Post, showed a 10-month-old victim of an Israeli air strike, at least that was the claim. But it turned out that a rocket launched by Palestinians was responsible for the boy’s death. In any case, the photo didn’t end the conflict, it only became a cause for further outrage on both sides. 

So Michael Moore announced on his blog last week that he hopes someone connected to the Sandy Hook shooting will leak photos of the children murdered that day. His argument is that only the photos will move Americans to defeat the NRA:

I believe someone in Newtown, Connecticut – a grieving parent, an upset law enforcement officer, a citizen who has seen enough of this carnagein our country – somebody, someday soon, is going to leak the crime scene photos of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. And when theAmerican people see what bullets from an assault rifle fired at close range do to a little child’s body, that’s the day the jig will be up forthe NRA. It will be the day the debate on gun control will come to an end. There will be nothing left to argue over. It will just be over. Andevery sane American will demand action.

There are all sorts of reasons to think Moore is wrong. First, it seems unlikely any responsible person connected to the case would leak the photos, which would outrage the parents and likely lead to lawsuits against the police. Second, even if they did leak, who would publish them? Certainly someone, somewhere on the web would. They’d show up on You Tube or Tumblr and on far-left blogs. But most people in America will never see them in any of those places.

But there’s another problem with Moore’s thought process. He assumes that if the photos leak and are shown, the American people will become enraged and turn their fury on the NRA. Now it’s true that some of them will, but I suspect those are mostly the people who already do turn their fury on the NRA at any opportunity. There are a lot of people who will simply turn their anger on Adam Lanza, who carried out the murders.

While it’s tempting to fault Moore for his ghoulishness in wanting to force photos of dead children on the public, the fact is his motivation isn’t hard to understand even if you share none of his political views. There are plenty of pro-life groups in the United States who resort to photographic shock and awe to make their points about the barbarity of abortion. Like Moore, they hope that confronting people with a gruesome reality will motivate them to oppose abortion. It works in some cases, but it also has the opposite effect on some people who wonder: What kind of sick people put pictures of dead babies on signs?

It turns out many people’s connection to legal abortion is stronger than their innate disgust at photos of dead children. Despite what they see they will continue sending Planned Parenthood checks. The same would be true of Sandy Hook crime scene photos and the NRA. Some will be outraged by the tactic and others by the lack of reaction to it. Gruesome images may have an impact but there is no reason to think they will be decisive in this case when they haven’t been in so many others.