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Jewish World Review June 26, 2002 / 16 Tamuz, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The choices that are
not theirs to make | KEARNEY, Neb. The smiling face of Elizabeth Smart stared up from the surface of the registration desk at the Country Inn here.

A color picture of her had been photocopied, and the photocopy had been taped to the registration desk. Anyone checking into the small hotel could learn her height, her weight, the color of her hair -- those details were listed on the sheet of paper, along with a phone number to call to report any sighting of her.

She is the girl who had been reported abducted from her home in Utah; the fliers with her photo had been distributed nationwide, and here this one was, right across from the breakfast buffet at the Country Inn. The intentions were undoubtedly good -- the more people who saw her face, the more people who might be able to assist law-enforcement officials trying to find her.

But the thought of this girl's photo and vital statistics being made available to anyone who happened to look at the flier ... the thought that now, by virtue of being taken from her home, she was public property. ...

The same thought had occurred to me as I read the front page of a newspaper I had picked up on the highway -- a copy of the Rocky Mountain News, a daily published in Denver. The banner headline read:


The subhead was: "Grand Junction woman found in landfill died of gunshot; no sign of daughter." There was a color photo of the dead woman, Jennifer Blagg. In the photo she was holding her daughter, Abby, 6.

The story said that Jennifer and Abby Blagg had been reported missing from their home last Nov. 13, and that Mrs. Blagg's body had been "unearthed from tons of rubble and garbage at the Mesa County landfill."

Nothing really wrong with that headline; actually "BODY ID'D AS MISSING MOM" was a concise and economical way to inform readers of what had taken place. The readers of the paper knew that Mrs. Blagg and her daughter had been missing; the headline brought them up to date in a brief span of words, and the photo of mother and daughter made clear who they were.

But the headline, just like the photocopied likeness of Elizabeth Smart on the hotel check-in counter, served to drive home a point that has been a way of life in our world for so long that we seldom stop to think about it:

Victims of violent crimes, in addition to everything else they lose, also immediately lose the one thing most people cherish most: their privacy.

It happens in less time than it would take you to snap your fingers. One moment a person -- Elizabeth Smart, sleeping in her bed at home -- is unknown to anyone outside her family and circle of friends. One moment Jennifer Blagg is living in her home in Colorado with her daughter, ignored by the rest of the world. Beneficiaries of the privacy the vast majority of our society expects and desires.

Then -- because they have disappeared under ominous circumstances -- that goes away. No one has any dark purpose in stripping away their privacy; in the case of Elizabeth Smart, law-enforcement officials actively requested that her photo, height, weight and hair color be distributed as widely as possible; in the case of Jennifer and Abby Blagg, the release of their names and photos was automatic. They are presumed to be victims; they no longer are private citizens.

And when a victim of a crime dies, that is when the privacy really disappears. Mrs. Blagg becomes a BODY that is ID'D. Whatever qualities she may have had in life, she is now summed up as MISSING MOM. It's accurate. It may not have been the way she envisioned her life ending up, but she has plenty of company. If a person is unlucky enough to die in a violent and unanticipated way, or to disappear under suspicious circumstances. ...

The loss of privacy of such people is seldom discussed, because compared to everything else they have lost it may seem minor. But chances are that Elizabeth Smart would never have chosen to have her photo and weight handed out to strangers; chances are that Jennifer Blagg would not have elected to be described to strangers as a body that has been ID'd. They weren't given the choice. They never are.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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