The power of photographs to evoke outrage, incite debate and influence public policy is a well-documented component of American history. The "Big Three" Vietnam War-era photos -- the Saigon street assassination, the napalmed Vietnamese girl and the shootings at Kent State University -- are widely credited with changing perceptions at home about U.S. involvement in the war in Southeast Asia.
The civil rights-era photos by photographers like Charles Moore riveted America with images of an oppressed segment of society struggling for equality. Those photos are now among our most important and cherished visual historic records.
Now, controversial filmmaker Michael Moore wants to make some visual history of his own. He has called for the release and publication of the undoubtedly horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School crime scene photos. His motivation: to "finish off the NRA."
Moore believes that the sight of the bullet-riddled bodies of those Connecticut first-graders will turn the citizenry against the National Rifle Association. More likely it will split the citizenry -- some against the NRA and some against Moore and any media company that might choose to publish the photos.
Media editors regularly grapple over whether disturbing images should be published. Remember The Californian's publication a few years back of barrels full of euthanized dogs and cats, and the massive public outcry? Readers who didn't quite grasp the reality of the county Animal Control Department's put-down policy on stray, unclaimed animals, and the sheer number of euthanizations, developed a sudden understanding. But balancing the impact on readers' emotions with the possibility of a greater good can be a tricky proposition.
Here's where Moore's suggestion troubles us. His proposal -- which no Sandy Hook parent has endorsed and some have unequivocally rejected -- is strictly political theater. Three months after the massacre, the photos' "news value" is limited and far outweighed by the certain emotional toll they would inflict.
While those Vietnam-era photos clearly became political, the intent of the photographers and the news agencies that initially carried them was to inform and illustrate, not to politicize -- the opposite of Moore's intent.
Publication of disturbing imagery -- and it is always the more graphic imagery that generates the most emotion -- is protected by the First Amendment. We know that, and we support that. But along with that freedom comes responsibility. Not what is legal, but what is moral and right. And the more we abuse that responsibility, the more likely we are to someday see those First Amendment protections further watered down by a Supreme Court that just might say, "OK, now you've gone too far."
Moore is, however, right about this: The "enough is enough" resolve that many Americans felt after the Newtown shootings is starting to fade. We mustn't let it. Whether the solution is mandatory background checks on all gun purchases, a better understanding of the causes and solutions surrounding mental illness, or a combination of those and other steps, we can't allow the fallout from that tragedy to simply dissipate into the wind.
But keeping the horror of Newtown alive so gratuitously for purely political purposes is not the right approach.