COLUMN

Keep Power Of Information With The People

On Nov. 22, 1963, bullets flew in Dallas, and tore into the head of John F. Kennedy. A citizen named Abraham Zapruder captured the killing on a "home movie" camera. The film had a complicated life, but in 2014, you can watch it on YouTube. You can watch it over and over or not at all.

You can look at frame 313, in which the president's head explodes. You can watch the frames that follow, in which Jackie Kennedy scrambles onto the back of the car. The whole thing is a horrible invasion of her privacy and of the late president's, and that invasion has now happened uncountable millions of times.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc was running down a road in South Vietnam, June 8, 1972, after a napalm attack on her village. Her flesh was seared, and she had torn off her clothes. She was 9, a naked little girl running and screaming in pain. Her burns, not really visible in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, were bad enough to kill her but didn't. She's married now, and a naturalized Canadian citizen.

Mary Ann Vecchio was 14 and a runaway from her home in Florida on May 4, 1970, when she kneeled over the body of Jeffrey Miller, 20, who was shot through the mouth by a National Guardsman at Kent State.

This is a big part of how we understand what happened. You can look at these film frames and photos as much as you want, until you get peace of mind or realize you'll never have it. Every time you do it, you invade the privacy of the living and the dead, but we live with that, because this is a democracy.

If you gave the government a choice, nobody would see these things. It's a rare government that says, "It's really best if everybody knows everything." Burning up little kids? Pointless slayings by domestic troops? The last moments of a president's life? You don't need to see that stuff, ma'am. Let us handle it.

On Monday, in the legislature's Judiciary Committee room, I heard its co-chairman, state Sen. Eric Coleman, question a witness. Coleman mentioned a photo The New York Times ran in August 2012 of Steven Ercolino, a victim in the Empire State Building shooting, bleeding out on a sidewalk.

"What is the value of such a photograph?" Coleman asked.

And I thought, "The value doesn't reside in the photograph. The value resides in the process. The value resides in the fact that your opinion, as a government official, doesn't mean diddly squat. It gets published, and you can't stop it."

There was a national conversation about that photo. Should it have been published? I don't know. Nine bystanders were hit by police bullets that day, so maybe we should look at all the available evidence. The one thing I know for sure is that I don't want Eric Coleman or anybody else from the government deciding whether that photo runs or whether it has "value."

Last year, the state legislature voted to exempt homicide crime scene photos and 911 calls from the Freedom of Information Act. Right now they are considering a modification that would allow you to inspect the photos and recordings but not copy them. You'd have to go to the station and ask permission. The press couldn't copy them and bring them to you, unless the press could prove that doing so had some value that outweighed the invasion of privacy.

They broke our vase last year. Now they are offering us a choice of two different cracked vases, but they are not offering to give us back our vase intact

I'm offended by the terms of this debate. I'm offended on behalf of Jackie and Jack, Kim, Jeffrey and Mary Ann, whose private lives were plowed under by the more pressing need to record history. I know there are people in Newtown (and other places) whose hearts are torn and could be torn even more. But look what happened. The government used your feelings as a reason to take more control.

It's horrible to ask people who have lost so much to give up one more thing. But that's what I'm asking.

Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5) and blogs at http://courantblogs.com/colin-mcenroe/. He can be reached at Colin@wnpr.org.

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