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Images of horror

Should we show what gunfire does to children?

Mass murder in a Texas school brings many questions to the fore, some of which concern parents, public officials and journalists alike. One was posed by the headline in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “Should we be forced to see exactly what an AR-15 does to a 10-year-old?”

It is a legitimate question. No one wants to see dead children. And no one needs to have images of mangled young bodies burned into our minds. But perhaps we should. Perhaps we need precisely that.

That is the thinking of two women. One is Susie Linfield, the journalism professor behind the Times headline. The other is Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon interviewed on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on Tuesday.

Linfield posed the question succinctly: “Is the viewing of violence an indefensible form of collaboration with it? Is the refusal to view violence an indefensible form of denial?”

Put another way, which is worse, to subject friends and family to nauseating images of their loss or to force the rest of us to acknowledge that what happened in Uvalde was not a Clint Eastwood movie?

Yes, we all know a bunch of kids got killed. But do we also know that they did not simply grab their chest and quietly fall over?

What modern weapons do to people is grotesque, which is at least in part by design. Kill an enemy soldier cleanly and the opposition is down one. His comrades will witness what they all knew was possible and may be inspired to greater effort.

Inflict a horrifying wound and the result is different – especially if the wound at least appears survivable. Others will be diverted to helping the wounded soldier and the enemy’s strength is then reduced by more than one.

But how to convey that horror in the context of a crime scene? Should it be shown? Do officials – and journalists – have as their foremost responsibility the protection of the feelings of already traumatized loved ones? Or is their greater duty to make the public understand the full extent of the tragedy?

Those are questions that merit serious discussion. In the meantime, a strange substance called ballistic gelatin could provide a partial response to what may be an unanswerable question.

Ballistic gelatin, says Wikipedia, “closely simulates the density and viscosity of human and animal muscle tissue.” As such, it is used to test the effectiveness of firearms and ammunition on people. (It was actually developed to mimic pig flesh because before ballistic gelatin, pig carcasses were used to test bullets. Pigs and humans have similar flesh.)

YouTube has readily accessible video of tests using ballistic gelatin. And from a ballistic point of view it is fascinating to see how a modern high-velocity bullet, and its attendant shock wave, both penetrate and cavitate. Until you think of how that would look if it were not gelatin, but a child’s body. Then it is enough to make you cry.

But then, maybe more of us should cry.