For decades, a standard tactic of anti-abortion activists was to display, in as much gruesome detail as possible, photos of aborted fetuses.
It was a vile tactic — an easy punch in the gut to the gullible and squeamish — but it’s hard to deny its effectiveness, or the inflammatory role it played in the culture wars. It was, in a way, a harbinger of the death of Roe v. Wade.
Revulsion, whether we like it or not, is a real political tactic. An extreme tactic, to be sure, but it has its uses. Hold that thought.
I’ve been hard on The Washington Post for years, and it continues to irk me in many ways, but it, too, has its uses. The Post is one of a vanishing breed, a news organization with both the resources and resourcefulness to publish the kind of essential series it dropped last week: a deep dive into what can only be called the culture of the AR-15 assault rifle.
The series covers that culture from multiple angles — from the town that makes the rifles, to the people who buy them, to the experiences of those who’ve sustained appalling personal damage, losing limbs, loved ones, or both to this hideous weapon.
There are an estimated twenty million AR-15s in this country right now. Each can fire upwards of thirty bullets every second. Each can take out a small crowd in less than a minute. And when I say “take out,” I mean many will die on the spot, many will die in the next few hours or days, and many will spend the rest of their lives in a private hell, dealing with a cascade of life-altering injuries nobody wants to think about.
Nor does anyone want to think about the crime scene itself. Photos from these massacres are never made public, either by the press or by law enforcement. You might see a picture of a child's shoe or a Barbie doll, but you’ll never see a body on camera.
What they’re shielding us from is the “carnage” — a word descended from the Latin for ‘meat’ — which is, more or less, what these killing rooms are covered with. Raw remnants of human beings, some of them shredded, some with skulls exploded, some with legs ripped off, some with internal organs pureed, some only recognizable through their DNA. A lot of them children.
We hear plenty about the shooter, who usually enjoys his fifteen minutes of fame posthumously. We get the three-day media circus, which gives the next shooter delusions of grandeur. We get the fevered search for "motive," as if that matters. We get capsule biographies of the dead. We get thoughts and prayers from Republicans, and impotent rage from everyone else.
So for our own sanity, we move on. We leave the school, the town, and its traumatized residents to lick their horrible wounds. And still we remain clueless about the severity of those wounds — both physical and mental — and about the long-term trauma that sets in for the victims, their families, and their communities.
We feel lucky to be insulated from the reality of the devastation. We feel grateful that it hasn't touched us. And we feel scared that one day it might.
The Post, to its credit, tries to give the horror more dimension — some of it eye-popping — than we'd usually see. They show us, via animated simulation, what these guns can do to a human body, but they stop well short of actual footage of the carnage.
The only ones who get to see it are the ones who have no choice — first responders, ER nurses, cops on the scene, jurors who need to assess guilt or innocence. Once in a while, you’ll hear one open up about it, and you realize none of them will ever be the same, either. Call them secondary victims. In the words of one surgeon, the body tissue “literally just crumbled in your hand.”
So nobody wants to look, and you couldn't if you wanted to. But what if we had to? What if we were forced to confront the grisly reality? What if revulsion were what it finally takes to shame this vastly over-armed population into sanity? What if the people who own these weapons could be made to understand how obscenely destructive they are?
Just as protesters brandished posters of fetuses at women entering abortion clinics, what if the people working in AR-15 factories saw pictures of puddled humans as they arrive at work? What if gun retailers had to be exposed to mutilated bodies before they could sell a gun that mutilates bodies. What if you couldn’t buy an AR-15 without seeing the gore it so efficiently processes?
Sometimes, the tactics of revulsion make sense. Sometimes, you can reduce a thousand words to one stomach-churning picture.
And the people who most need their stomachs churned — the ones who most need to see the blood, bone, and brain tissue they've inflicted on society — are Republican legislators.
If you haven’t heard, GOP congressmen have turned the AR-15 into, of all things, a lapel pin. It’s now a cute little fashion accessory, something they can wear proudly and without irony, to proclaim their patriotism, or at least their readiness to kill for their country.
This has finally superseded the idiotic flag pins that were practically mandatory political props in the twenty years following 9/11. If you remember, Fox stirred up three days of shocked indignation when Obama was spotted once without one, thereby confirming his Kenyan citizenship.
But that was about the American flag, another subject for another day. And those flag pins were never more than a tacky bit of symbolism, simple-minded but harmless.
The symbolism of an AR-15 lapel pin is anything but harmless. Every congressman wearing one is a walking billboard for violence, subjugation, and fascism. Every public figure flaunting that gun has blood on their hands. The GOP is, in so many ways, the party of death.
So how do we deal with people so depraved, so devoid of humanity, so infinitely tolerant of the accelerating rate of AR-15 atrocities?
Well, one thing we can do is rub their faces in it. Every congressional hearing involving guns should, from now on, be a show-and-tell. Democrats should use their time to show the enablers, in graphic detail, exactly what they've enabled.
Republicans, whose knowledge of the Constitution begins and ends with the Second Amendment, should be haunted by these images forever. May they never get a good night's sleep again.
And next time a gun case comes before SCOTUS — whose justices are reputed to traffic in several other amendments — the lawyers should enter the courtroom with briefcases full of AR-15 porn.
All these people need to see the real-world consequences of their precious gun fetish. And they need to see it in dying color.