From Charles Manson to Richard Speck to Stephen Paddock, America’s fascination with its mass killers is almost boundless. It is clearly a human instinct to learn as much about the most violent among us as we can.
Is it morbid curiosity or a yearning to know as much as possible about the perpetrators so that we can see warning signs and prevent mass killings in the future? Are the media guilty of sensationalizing tragedy when we publish detailed information about gunmen like Adam Lanza?
These questions and more will be asked following the Hartford Courant’s decision to publish stories this week — online and in its Sunday print edition — describing more than 1,000 pages of disturbing documentary evidence the paper had received after a protracted legal battle with state police over the Sandy Hook massacre.
It was a journalistic tour de force that involved two of the paper’s top investigative reporters, Josh Kovner and Dave Altimari, several editors and graphic designers. It occupied some important real estate, encompassing about two-thirds of the front page and four ad-free pages on the inside, including a loose, double-sided single sheet awkwardly added for extra space.
There was a story exploring the documents, another one describing the spreadsheet Lanza kept that catalogued 400 other mass killings. Some of the documents themselves were reprinted — though not enough of them, in my opinion. And, as you might expect, there was an editorial defending the Courant’s decision to publish the material in the first place.
It probably won’t surprise regular readers of this column to learn that I support the Courant’s decision since I rarely come down on the side of secrecy in government. But it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the state police fought the release of the material tooth-and-nail.
Law enforcement authorities are reflexively secretive — that is unless there is a fugitive on the run and they think they locate and arrest the suspect by releasing information. So when police officers choose to release information, and when they resist doing so, you’d have to question their motives.
As the Courant editorial makes clear, not only did state police try to shield the documents from the news media but they tried to hide them from researchers, mental health practitioners, educators, and others who could have learned valuable information that could have helped them do their jobs. The cops even held them back from the very experts they had asked to help authorities understand one of the worst school shootings in history.
The legal argument for withholding the documents was that they were private property belonging to the Lanza family and thus exempt from the state’s freedom-of-information laws. Or as the Courant hints, maybe the state police were under tremendous pressure not to put any additional stress on the grieving families of the 26 who died.
I know there will be some who disagree with me on this — and I might sound cold-hearted — but preventing another massacre such as that which occurred six years ago is more important than protecting the survivors from further grief.
In a report released about a year after the tragedy, state police described the documents. But as we all know, when the police choose to omit something from a summary, it could be an act of self-preservation designed to the protect the cops from allegations of wrongdoing or incompetence. Evidently, they just want us to be quiet and take their word for it.
Thankfully, the Courant wouldn’t take no for answer — and nor would the state FOI Commission. Both argued before the state Supreme Court for the release. After a five-year battle and in a unanimous decision, the high court overruled a lower court in October.
This is an example of how we can be thankful that not every decision in our state is made by elected officials who are slaves to public opinion. We can also be grateful that, with the exception of probate, judges in Connecticut don’t run for election. And I think we all know that few members of the General Assembly would have publicly called for the release of the documents for fear of appearing callous, as I just have.
Nor for that matter would our elected attorney general, who argued against their release on the grounds that the Lanza papers weren’t public documents because, though they were seized through a search warrant, they were never used as evidence in a criminal case. Well, duh. The shooter took his own life and spared the families and the public a trial.
The whole episode reminds me of my recent contribution to sustaining good journalism: a subscription through my Amazon Prime account to the digital version of the Washington Post, whose melodramatic motto, inscribed on the free water bottle the paper sent me, nonetheless speaks directly to the advocates of secrecy in government: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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