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Guest opinion: Crime victims belong to all

After months of contention, legislation, and litigation, recordings of the telephone calls made to police during the massacre at the school in Newtown a year ago were released the other day at the order of the state Freedom of Information Commission and a Superior Court judge, and the sky did not fall.

Some news organizations broadcast the recordings or made them available at their Internet sites. Other news organizations just characterized and excerpted the calls in print. The recordings showed only competence and heroism, even as people in authority were ready to learn from any mistakes indicated. People who wanted to listen to the recordings could do so, but nobody had to.

No journalists were eager to listen to the recordings; those who did just considered it their job to tell whatever story remained to be told so everyone might be able to evaluate what had been done.

When the General Assembly reconvenes in February, Connecticut will have to decide whether to leave criminal justice open to evaluation like this or to begin sealing off parts of it in the name of protecting crime victims and their survivors, as criminal justice is sealed off in totalitarian countries. For in seeking to seal it off, what calls itself the victims’ rights movement in Connecticut is essentially a totalitarian movement, a movement that asserts that crime is a private matter, not an offense against all society — a movement that claims proprietary rights to criminal justice.

This movement includes some survivors of the teachers and students murdered in Newtown, the Danbury state’s attorney, the current and former state victim advocates, and opportunistic politicians. Astoundingly they ignore the long history of corruption in law enforcement, demonstrated just weeks ago by the sensational trial in Boston of the mobster Whitey Bulger, whose murders were protected by the FBI. Also astoundingly, they ignore the long history of political activism by crime victims and survivors themselves.

Some police officials and prosecutors would love to give the victims’ rights movement the “privacy” for which it clamors — would love to conceal the records of criminal investigation and shutter the criminal courts, putting not just the public in the dark but crime victims and survivors as well.

Many elected officials would love this too, since then they never might be called to account for the social disintegration caused by their catastrophically mistaken policies. But crime victims and their survivors soon would discover that they didn’t like private criminal justice at all. Even more crime would be concealed, minimized, or inadequately investigated, perpetrators coddled, and political reform stifled. Some survivors of the Newtown victims should know this better than anyone, having made themselves national figures in support of gun-control legislation.

Indeed, journalists who report about murders and other untimely deaths often find that the survivors, though grieving, are actually eager to talk, as they should be, just as news organizations should be eager to quote them — to pay respect and give meaning to the lost lives and to pursue justice.

This is an old lesson basic to decent civilization, only recently forgotten along with other basic things as society is dumbed down and comes apart. For as the great British legal scholar Jeremy Bentham wrote two centuries ago, “Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion, and the surest of all guards against improbity. It keeps the judge himself, while trying, under trial.”

Of course some Newtown survivors may not ever again be able to perceive anything beyond their own grief. But grief here is not theirs alone, and grief will not excuse them for destroying the prerequisites of accountable government and due process of law.

Nothing in living memory has shaken Connecticut like the massacre in Newtown. Like accountable government, due process of law, criminal justice, and other crime victims, the victims of Newtown belong to all of us.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.

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