By Scott Jennings
Fifteen years ago, a presidential aide, talking to his colleagues about issues that would face future Supreme Courts, said: “The next two decades, it’s gonna be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cellphones. I’m talking about health records, and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on a will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”
The aide was Sam Seaborn, advisor to fictional President Josiah Bartlett, arguing against a Supreme Court nominee who was weak on privacy. Young Sam first uttered those words in The West Wing on November 24, 1999, and countless times more on video since.
Missing from Sam’s list was something like, “I’m talking about video cameras being everywhere, even in elevators, recording everything we do.”
Videos grip and define our national discourse. They disgust us with our nation’s enemies. They cost CEO’s their jobs. Their absence leaves us asking questions about what really happened on the street of a Midwestern suburb.
And a key question is emerging – who is in charge of which videos we are allowed to see?
Let’s start with Ray Rice, who will never play football again and may well cost National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell his job. Video of the altercation with his fiancé (now wife) has been viewed millions of times online, broadcast on national networks and will live forever through countless retweets and shares.
The horrific video shows Rice brutally punching his fiancé, and then dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator. Culturally, we’ve decided it is fine for us to see this so we can collectively communicate that it is not OK for a man to abuse a woman, and that there are consequences for doing so.
What about the case of Centerplate CEO Des Hague, caught by an elevator camera kicking and choking a dog? This footage, too, has zipped around the globe, distributed by those of us disgusted that a person running a 30-thousand person company would do such a thing. We distribute it because we hate what we see, and we want people to know that is it not OK to abuse a dog. This abuse cost Mr. Hague his job.
“I’d like to…thank our employees, clients and guests who expressed their feelings about this incident. Their voices helped us to frame our deliberations during this very unusual and unfortunate set of circumstances,” said Joe O’Donnell, chairman of the board of directors for Centerplate.
Would they have fired Hague if someone had merely reported that he had abused a dog, or did it take the video? My money is on the video driving the consequence.
In Ferguson, Missouri, no video exists in the case of Michael Brown, the 18 year old shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. A body camera on Officer Wilson’s uniform would certainly “frame” the view of a grand jury investigating the case. If a video existed proving the assertion that Brown was shot while trying to surrender, brutal as it may be, it would be treated the same way as the Rice or Hague tapes, used to communicate a fundamental value that it is not OK for a cop to shoot a guy with his hands up.
Which brings us to ISIS, the terrorist organization beheading Westerners in the Middle East and distributing videos of their brutality. Last week brought a third tape from the group, this time of a British aid worker murdered at the hands of the evil cowards. As before, Silicon Valley companies that have so much influence over our lives and culture decided for the rest of us that we cannot see the tape, choosing to block them because of policies prohibiting “content intended to incite violence,” according to one Twitter spokesperson.
But why not show us? After all, we develop our values based on what we see. As horrific as they are, the Rice and Hague tapes further strengthen our values against domestic and animal abuse. If a Ferguson tape existed showing the police officer shooting an unarmed teenager with his hands up (something about which we’ll never know the whole truth), it would further our cultural resolve to eliminate such unacceptable interactions between the public and those sworn to protect us.
President Obama announced last week that he is launching a bombing campaign against ISIS, responding to outrage over the group’s brutality. ISIS is apparently brutal enough for the United States to spend blood and treasure destroying, but too brutal for those paying for the destruction to fully see.
To defeat ISIS, Obama needs the civilized world to be as outraged and as resolved as ever to stamp out this sort of evil. He should ask the tech companies to lift the ban on the tapes, trusting that human beings can handle the truth: that it is not OK to behead and threaten free people, no matter how awful it is to look at. The coming consequences for violating this fundamental American value demand such transparency.
This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal on September 16, 2014.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.