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Now, nearly a year after the horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut is debating whether to make public the audio of those 911 calls.
Are they prurient, or probative? As the Newtown Bee newspaper argued, would they serve morbid interest, or public interest? What if someone decided to turn this harrowing record of slaughter into a phone ringtone?
Connecticut already bars the release of certain homicide material, like crime scene photos. The families of some Newtown victims and the state's justice department want audio of 911 calls added to that restricted list; the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, along with the Associated Press, want to keep the policy that now makes such 911 calls public record.
Bill Sherlach, the husband of a victim, says he would be fine with releasing transcripts but not the actual sounds. "There must be some balance," he told the Hartford Courant, "between making sure the public's right to know is sustained while the victims of certain atrocities' right to privacy is also honored."
And he told a task force on the matter that "transcripts can relay all the information that the public wants without having to hear the sounds of a slaughter in the background."
It's an appalling choice, but in some ways it is not, however awful it sounds, just about the families and their private agonies. When the law acts, it acts in the name of the people, not the victims, which is why criminal cases are called "The people versus … " It is for the state to mete out justice on behalf of the victims, to protect and look out for them, thereby transmuting the tragic and personal into a matter of the people, and their agent — the government — upholding the state's role as the enforcer and protector.
Otherwise we'd be left with a free-for-all system in which victims' families would exact revenge as they choose, and then retribution would ensue, and so on, ad infinitum — the Hatfields and McCoys on a national scale.
The 911 calls are part of that power that reposes in the state to carry out justice.
And there is power in the telephone calls to make unflinchingly real what could otherwise be shrugged off in the abstract.
Fifty years ago, all through a November afternoon and a long, cold night, the just-widowed first lady of the United States, Jackie Kennedy, refused to change out of the pink Chanel suit smeared with her husband's blood and brains. "No," she said. "Let them see what they've done."
She was right; the dark smears on the bright suit where JFK'S shattered head had lain made the assassination absolutely real.
Newtown's victims are small children, not the leader of the free world. At some point, the world, and not just a jury, should hear "what they've done." It has the power to change minds and hearts.
But perhaps not right away. In fact, the 911 calls during the Sept. 11 attacks were only released piecemeal, and then more fully only because victims' families sued to have them released.
Before then, the 911 operators' voices were released, but the victims' — the people pleading for help in the twin towers — were not. Only after the desperate families sued to find out what happened was the full audio of many calls heard.
Nothing will satisfy the nutty knitters of conspiracies who within days talked about “knowing” the Newtown killings were faked, just as they are “sure”
Crazy and cruel people will always find a way to inflict their craziness and cruelty. Someone mailed pictures of dead children to Nicole Hockley, a grieving Newtown mother, who worries about what the 911 calls and the endless loops of play they would get would do to her other child.
The Connecticut Supreme Court may end up creating a precedent. It should take into account not only this case but other 911 calls to come, 911 calls that might reveal a kind of chaos and misinformation that could have told some victims to stay put when they might have been able to evacuate. Other 911 calls, painful as they are, might help the search for justice.