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Crime and Privacy

SHOULD the media broadcast or print the name of a woman who makes an accusation of rape? When NBC and the New York Times published such a name recently, they aroused great wrath among viewers and readers. Most news organizations did not follow their lead.

As with a decision to have or not have an abortion, some things a woman must decide for herself. Gender is a factor here. Is it even possible for men as a group to hold valid opinions on such a subject, let alone assume responsibility for an individual's decision? If a rape is thought to compromise a woman in the view of others, why should she have that circumstance known?

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That other media may have published the name is no reason to follow suit. Some countries do not permit publication of the names of parties to a potential suit until formal charges are entered.

When political or highly visible families are involved, media interest intensifies. To protect against special favor the media may err toward disclosure. Information, usually including names, must be published about a democracy's justice process to keep the system in check. Some scholars do not find an explicit privacy protection in the Constitution; others do. Whatever. In our electronic age, so much information flows that we are desensitized to its effects. And in a society fascinated by violence, the

tide is toward telling more, even at the risk of enhancing the sense of victimization.

Determining guilt or innocence is not enough. Justice more broadly viewed should permit the reclamation of a life touched by crime. Publicity can make reclamation more difficult.

Renewal should be possible for the perpetrator as well as the victim of a crime. Society holds less sympathy for the convicted and their families, although they too must seek to reorder their lives.

At the least, the viewer or reader of crime reports should hold out the prospect that a report may be wrong and that nothing is really known until the legal process has run its course.

This requires restraint by the media and the public. Shielding parties in rape cases helps preserve dignity during trying times.

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Notoriety is violence done to one's reputation, deservedly or not. One reads, for example, of a television reporter's account of sinking into a mind-numbing depression during the course of a highly publicized lawsuit.

Publicity can be aggressive. It can destroy careers. In politics it searches out potential flaws of character; here it is a protection to society. Publicity disciplines and rewards.

But again more broadly: Why should a lifelong reputation be determined by one story in time. Consider the Watergate case. Take the worst view of the matter about the guilt of the president and his men. Endorse their sentences. Then what? Should we not inquire also how these men may have sought to rebuild their lives? On which side shall we lean, toward punishing them forever, or welcoming them back insofar as they come back?

Or if regular felons are more to our liking, what about the hundreds of thousands of men and women in prison today, and their families?

America's social policy of last resort is the penal colony.

When so great a proportion of citizens is convicted of wrongdoing, enough to populate the city of Boston, society itself bares a responsibility it has yet to define.

A man stood on the street corner the other day. He was younger-middle-aged, cleanly dressed, and holding a neatly penned sign: "I WILL WORK FOR FOOD." The intensity in his eyes is not soon forgotten. I trust he has found work.

An infinite turning of the cheek cannot become public policy. But we need mass forgiveness. Mass compassion. Mass support. We lack enough places in drug programs, for instance, for those wanting help.

Life can be tough. Drugs, racism, lower barriers against personal violence, more fire power abroad and more guns at home - these test us. We should be in the reclamation business instead of in the conviction business.

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