Tuesday, September 04, 2007

When People Should Be Left Alone

One day last week, I was at the airport. It was the day that actor Owen Wilson was fortunate enough to be unsuccessful in his attempt at suicide, and the anchor for the television network that seems ubiquitous at airports was reading a statement from Mr. Wilson in which he requested that his privacy be respected during his period of recovery. Immediately after reading the statement, the anchor -- I lie not -- looked into the camera and with a straight face declared that the network would continue to monitor the story and pass along information as it became available.

That closing sentence is a common throwaway line at the end of a news segment, and there is some likelihood that the newsman did not even notice the irony of its juxtaposition with the request from Mr. Wilson. However, the moment did serve as a reminder, once again, of the way that the American public treats celebrities as cartoon figures and derives entertainment from their emotional traumas.

Similarly, today the Associated Press is reporting that Senator Craig's children believe his assurances that he is not a homosexual. Whatever the public may think about Mr. Craig's credibility on this point, it strikes me as obvious that this is the kind of issue that the family should be permitted to resolve without the glare of the public spotlight. Of course, there was a legitimately public aspect to this story. A sitting U.S. Senator had pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that arose from some rather unseemly behavior, and his colleagues rightly demanded that he leave his position once those facts became known. All of that merits public attention. But at some point, the public's legitimate need to know ends, and the right of a person or a family to go away and figure it all out ought to begin.

Some years ago in Tennessee, a state representative was arrested after being caught fondling himself at a public swimming pool. There were children present at the time, so the crime was a serious one for which he deserved to go to jail. However, following the arrest, the man was subjected to every kind of ridicule from newspaper columnists and talk show wags. A few days later, he stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

In some ways, it is surprising that the same does not happen with greater frequency. Don't get me wrong: justice should be swift when individuals are guilty of wrongdoing. Throw perpetrators in jail, and toss the key in the bottom of the ocean. Just leave aside the ridicule, and leave the families alone.

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