I own a home, but I don’t have to tell you where it is.
I have a kitchen with stainless steel appliances in it, but I don’t have to share pictures of them with you.
I have a backyard and a too-small bathroom and a second floor laundry room and a converted attic that doubles as my bedroom—but to see these things, to know more about them, you’re just going to have to use your imagination, or take my word for it, because they are mine, they are not yours, and as much as I like you, as much as I enjoy your company, I save these things, these very private things, for the people I hold nearest and dearest in my life.
I can make these decisions because the house is mine, and because—excluding my wife and the bank—nobody owns it except for me.
But I wonder in this day and age how far that really goes. And to whatever extent it reaches, I wonder how long it will.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a genius. But you don’t need to be one to know what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December was nothing short of an American tragedy. It may not be as obvious, but when a newspaper called The Journal News decided to publish an interactive map of all the registered handgun owners in New York’s Rockland and Westchester counties—supposedly in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook—it was a tragedy of a much different but just as alarming kind.
We live in an era unlike any in human history. Human beings have always been connected, always been social animals, but we’ve never been connected the way we are today, never had this kind of substantial social network. Never in human history have we been able to communicate face-to-face with people out of earshot. Never before has a trip around the world taken a matter of hours.
Some of our connections we choose for ourselves, like plastering pics of family reunions and trips to Ikea on Facebook. And some of our connections aren’t chosen, but are accepted because they are awesome, like the thrill of losing yourself for an hour viewing your town from above on Google.
But at some point these connections cease to be connections and start to be something that isn’t quite human. At some point they blur the lines of human community and start to be invasions of privacy. What The Journal News did was a perfect example. What they did was one of the most unbelievable invasions of privacy in history.
The claim is that they did it because guns have become a problem, and because people have a right to know what dangers are lurking within their communities. Never mind that the registered gun owners they exposed aren’t criminals, but are, by definition, law-abiding citizens. What the paper did was wrong because it just feels wrong. You can tell it’s wrong because it doesn’t feel right. You can tell, when you assess it, that you’d never be comfortable being on such a map for any kind of purpose. And you start to get the sense that, when we’re this connected, maybe we’re too connected—that sometimes invading privacy in the name of safety makes us less safe.
(And in this case, it most certainly did. Now that the word is out who owns handguns in these counties, burglars can go shopping for easier targets. That a newspaper could make this move without considering this possibility is almost as unfathomable as it is dumb.)
As much of a tragedy as Sandy Hook was, as much as it made us wonder how any human being could ever so devalue other human lives (especially children’s lives), The Journal News’ actions make you wonder something similar. They make you wonder where we are as a society. They make you wonder whether privacy and individuality mean anything anymore, and whether we’re alone even in our own homes.
I have to applaud Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant for not releasing his own county’s list of gun owners to the paper. In an era where politicians on both so-called sides are the ones who are typically spearheading encroachments on our privacy, here’s a guy who said, “To heck with the law,” and enough was at last enough. It’s going to take a lot of Dennis Sants in the political arena, and a lot of Dennis Sants in everyday life, to stem the tide of what’s bound to be even greater invasions of privacy in the future. There’s an excuse for it now because there are guns involved, but guns aren’t what this is really about. This is about our modern society, our connectivity, who we are and what we’ve become. Do we own ourselves? Do we belong to other people? Where are the lines? How far shall we cross them?
It’s said that one person’s freedom ends where another one’s begins—not at the tip of a newspaper editor’s pen. If guns are a problem, we can have that discussion. But posting people on a map isn’t discussing anything. It’s invading the privacy of those who’ve done no wrong, for no other reason than technology lets you. Our First Amendment ensures the freedom of the press not to shame individual citizens, but to safeguard our freedoms against trespasses by the government. When the media not only fails to protect us against such trespasses but actually initiates such trespasses themselves, you begin to realize just how much this disregard for privacy has permeated our society. It is with us everywhere, on every level—on every phone, in every pocket.
If we can’t respect people’s right to keep certain things to themselves, if we can’t draw a line and leave people alone, then it’s no wonder we live in a society where human life has so little value to some people that incidents like Sandy Hook… and Aurora… and Virginia Tech… can occur. We don’t respect life because we don’t respect the things inherent to life—things like liberty, privacy, self-determination.
Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture, available now for Kindle and Nook, as well as in paperback.