When the media are accused of "exploiting" a tragedy or horrific event, it is often the case that the press has managed to expose some painful truths. Media focus on the rising death toll of U.S. soldiers in the second Iraq war was angrily described as exploitation by supporters of the war, but in reality the deaths were indicators of the war's disastrous failure. Accusations of exploitation also suggest that the accusers are weary of some event and want to move on like it never happened.
Accusations that the media are exploiting the shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, are certainly related to the attention drawn to the truth of America's gun culture and inadequate gun laws. Many of the accusers undoubtedly want to move on from Newtown -- after all it has been two months -- and forget about it to whatever extent possible. But the cries of "exploitation" may also reflect accusers' fears that Newtown may prove to be the first gun tragedy that is not swept under the rug, and that America will finally be forced to treat its sickness.
"If Americans knew what bullets did to human flesh, they'd support gun control," wrote Heather Mallick, a columnist for the Toronto Star, last week. Canada has strict national gun laws and little gun violence, leaving our neighbors to the north to try to understand why we have so much gun violence and are so accepting of it. Maybe, Ms. Mallick posits, gun violence is sanitized for Americans, and the U.S. media, while accused of exploitation, has indeed been discrete in describing the specifics of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December 14.
Veronique Pozner, whose son Noah, age 6, was one of the 20 children killed in Newtown, confronted the destructive power of guns and forced others to do so. Ms. Mallick's column was based upon an interview Ms. Pozner did with Naomi Zeveloff of the Jewish Daily Forward, who wrote about why the Connecticut mother insisted on an open coffin for her son.
Young Noah was shot 11 times in the attack by Adam Lanza, who hauled a military-style assault weapon into the school two weeks before Christmas. A cloth was placed over the lower part of Noah's face as he lay in the open coffin because his jaw had been shot off in the attack. His left hand had been blown apart as well. When Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy came to pay his respects he wept after seeing Noah's body at the insistence of his mother.
"If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him," said Mrs. Pozner in reference to possible gun reform bills.
Will anyone dare accuse Veronique Pozner of exploiting her son's death in her attempt to prevent the gun deaths of other American children?
Ms. Mallick writes that there is a precedent for Ms. Pozner's brave action. After President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas and pronounced dead 50 years ago this November, it was suggested to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy that she change out of her bloodied suit so as not to make anyone uncomfortable.
"Let them see what they've done," replied Mrs. Kennedy, who was wearing the bloodstained outfit in the iconic photograph of Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office as president.
As many have said and written, America needs to get a grip on the problem of mental illness in response to Newtown and other gun-related tragedies. Unfortunately, however, not every mentally ill person will be diagnosed as such, and not every mentally ill person who is diagnosed will be cured. But if no one in America has access to a military-style assault weapon, no mentally ill person will ever use one to shoot up a classroom of children again.
It is painful to confront the reality of Newtown, but by doing so and responding with the passage of strict, enforceable and long overdue gun laws, the odds that America will ever have to confront anything so heartbreaking again will be lowered dramatically. Doing this will only take a fraction of the courage shown by Jackie Kennedy and Veronique Pozner.