What Listening to the Newtown 911 Recordings Says About You

We're horrified, but sometimes we can't turn away. Is that ever O.K?

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Twenty seven wooden angles are viewed in a yard down the street from the Sandy Hook School Dec. 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.

Correction made 12/5/13

If you’re careful, you’ll get through today without doing something morally monstrous. If you’re not careful, you won’t. It’s as simple as that.

It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a virtuous person, a well-intentioned but flawed person, or—at least in your private reflections—something of a louse. You have a fair chance of being morally good or morally monstrous every day—in part because the definition of  monstrous can be such a slippery thing. Murder? Check. Looting a pension fund and bankrupting hundreds of retirees? Sure. How about ignoring a starving street person begging in front of a supermarket while you’re on your way home to tuck into a roast leg of lamb? To you, that’s a misdemeanor. To the hungry guy? It’s something else.

So what does it say about you if you listened to the 911 tapes of the Newtown school shooting when they became available today? What does it say if you not only listened to them but first went looking for them? Plenty of news outlets, including Time.com, have chosen not to post links to the audios. But they’re out there, and maybe you found them, listening to the terror of the callers and the gunfire in the background and knowing that children—babies, really—were being murdered by the bullets that each of those popping sounds represented.

(MORE: Want More-Tolerant Kids? Keep Them Away From the TV)

Does it make it better if you were horrified by what you heard? If it made you even more committed to stopping this kind of horror in the future? If it made you hug your kids and give thanks for their safety? Maybe, but there were other things you probably felt too: a sense of can’t-turn-away fascination; a guilty thrill that you were listening to an unfolding drama whose outcome you know (exactly how many will die, exactly who they will be) even though the participants in it didn’t. The JFK anniversary is over and you’ve had your fill of the slo-mo Zapruder film (the president had three seconds to live; the president had two seconds to live—and he didn’t know it!) and now the Newtown recordings come along. If you listened to the tapes—or you’ve been gaping at Zapruder—and didn’t come away feeling at least a little disgusted with yourself, well, you’re not thinking very hard.

Certainly you have a few moral lifelines to use. We are curious creatures—always have been and always will be—and we find it hard to resist things that are stunning and moving and unfamiliar. “Our lives are circumscribed by our everyday circumstances,” says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and ethicist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “When bad things happen, we want to know about them. This is why people rubberneck at traffic accidents.”

But there’s more going on than mere gawking. One of the reasons we rubberneck is the same reason we go to the theater. Haidt cites both Aristotle and  the Hindu sage Bharata asking why we choose to spend an evening watching a tragedy. Why do we want to feel bad? “The answer,” Haidt says, “is that in the theater, we get to taste unfamiliar emotions from a distance. They’re not a result of bad things that are really happening to us; they’re not even really happening to the people on the stage. They’re as-if emotions.”

(MORE: The Selfish Reasons Behind Why We Give)

The problem in the case of Newtown is that there wasn’t any as-if about it. Twenty children and six faculty members lost their very real lives in a very real way. “In this case,” says Haidt, “we’re not dealing with aesthetic emotions. This was real horror, a real atrocity. I would not dream of listening to these tapes and I assume that most people with small children wouldn’t either.”

But that argument can be turned on its head: if we cut ourselves off from horror, if we refuse to look at it, aren’t we in some ways failing to bear proper witness to it? The best ways to  prevent such savagery from happening again may be to face the fact that it happened in the first place. If that’s so, aren’t we almost morally bound to listen to the sounds of Newtown—and isn’t failing to listen a form of moral cowardice?

Sorry, no—at least not in this case.”Some people are motivated by collective guilt at what happened so they might listen to help them deal with that,” says Richard Shweder, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Chicago‘s Department of Comparative Human Development. “Some people listen because it gets them feeling indignant about guns or mental health issues or other things they care about.”

(MORE: Yom Kippur, Germany and the Moral Do-Over)

But stoking your personal outrage or cleansing yourself of guilt is, in neither case, about the victims. It’s about making yourself feel better. Nice try, but it’s morally greedy.

Shweder does feel that if the outcome had been different—if the police had stormed in or the killer had been subdued before he could commit his slaughter—there might at least be a colorable argument in favor of hearing the tapes. “Defeating evil is one thing,” he says, “but bearing witness to its triumph is a form of degradation.”

Disturbingly, in a culture that’s always on camera—whether it’s reality shows or smartphone videos or the ubiquitous security cameras in public and not-so-public places—bearing such witness is becoming easier and easier. That, Shweder fears, is just coarsening us further, giving everything the emotional distance of a movie—and leaving us with the same kind of emotional depth. Newtowns will happen—and happen and happen, it’s starting to seem. The more we respect them as private tragedies, not public circuses, the closer we may come to bringing them to an end.

(MORE: Blame Game: Why We Hate to Feel Guilty)

Correction: The original version of this story included the wrong name for one of the experts cited. He is Richard Shweder, not Robert.

64 comments
lm7254
lm7254

Mr. Krugler, what judgment do you cast upon the moral character of one who watches a holocaust documentary? Sick? Twisted? I think people are thirsty for truth. The misinformation and political manipulations that came out of this tragedy since it occurred have people fed up. Maybe the tapes represent an ounce of unfiltered truth from that day. Some people like truth, even uncomfortable truth. That used to be what journalism was for.

TheWoodman
TheWoodman

As a parent of three young children, and a lifelong resident of the neighboring town that houses the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, I find it offensive that this editor has the gall to suppose and impose any question of morality upon anyone. He is a product and emissary of the liberal media that pushed for these tapes to be released. For anyone here in Monroe and Newtown, CT the tragedy still echoes today. My children go to a school that now feels like a prison, where parents cannot even go to classrooms for events and children are buzzed into school. These tapes, for whatever reasons someone would listen to them, is their choice - emotionally, morally, spiritually, and physically- healing or just to understand for themselves and their family. Newtown was an epicenter of tragedy, that expanded out to my town and beyond. It is obvious the editor had no one critique his piece of garbage before it was posted/printed. Thank you, W

meboisv
meboisv

Mr. Kluger, whatever sick mental issues you have that would make you feel some sort of fascination or guilty thrill listening to these tapes, please don't project them onto us. Most of us can be adults about the situation.  Listening to these tapes says nothing about our character. Referring to them as a "guilty thrill" says a boatload about yours.

JeffreyGuterman
JeffreyGuterman

Interesting analysis, but I suggest that the title of this article be changed to "What Listening to the Newtown 911 Recordings Says About Jeffrey Kluger." People are unique and the author has not way of knowing the many complex reasons people have or have listened to the Newtown 911 recordings. Sometimes people do not know their own motives for things they do. How, then, can Mr. Kluger even begin to speculate?

DJS
DJS

Mr. Kluger-Where is your critique of Time and other media of covering such stories,? Why don’t you speak with your editors and suggest that they stop running graphic stories on atrocities  rather than reserving your judgement for  viewers and readers on aha the media has put out there? It is the the media, which is PROFITING from the coverage of murders of innocent children and adults  and paying YOUR salary, in the process.

LilMuse
LilMuse

I'm still waiting for the article that discusses morality of using deaths of children to promote gun control laws.  Gun laws that violate our Constitution.  That take away the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves, their families and yes ... their children from criminals who would hurt them.  Our right to protect and defend ourselves.  A right we have had and enjoyed forever.  A right which has saved many lives.

I'm hoping this article would clarify how these Newtown families want and deserve privacy, yet spent their time on national TV trying to take away the rights of trillions of law-abiding citizens ... and yes, parents who simply want to protect their own homes and families. 

Those who made Newtown a national gun control issue took away any right to privacy.  They made this an issue for each and every citizen.  Let's discuss the morality of that, for they are the one's who should be blamed and shamed for what they have done.  Not to 26 people.  But to millions, trillions of citizens who have done nothing wrong.

JaySGee
JaySGee

Trillions of citizens? Really? Are you aware that the population of the entire earth is about 7 billion? And that ONE trillion is equal to one-thousand billion? It's hard to take seriously the opinion of someone so lacking in even a basic grasp of numbers.

LilMuse
LilMuse

What is says about a person who listens to the tapes is this:

They seek truth.  They are not blindly led by what others tell them to think and believe. 

They have not given up on critical thinking in favor of PC extremists with an agenda.

When something doesn't seem right, they investigate.  Much like reporters did in the old days, before state run media took over.

They also don't fall for politically staged events to negate rights, even those clearly stated in our Constitution.  They are the most moral people on earth.  Which is why we remained a sovereign nation as long as we did. 

But the Hitlers of the world would totally agree with this article.  Because it suits their agenda.  Fools and tools fall for it.

richardrothey
richardrothey

Thank you for the article.  It's reassuring to know that we live in a world where at least some people know how to use their minds to good purpose.  We need more thoughtful people rather than less.  It would never occur to me to listen to such things.  That is because it seems so voyeuristic and sadistic.  When I saw the postings about them being made online yesterday, I wondered what the hype was about.  It didn't make sense to me that such a big sensational issue was being made of something so very sad because I could not see how anyone could possibly benefit by listening to them except for possibly a police investigator or something like that.

BBNY2013
BBNY2013

Wooden angles? Who the heck is your proof reader?

lm7254
lm7254

What using a national tragedy as a medium to giddily jump upon your moral high horse says about YOU.

Piacevole
Piacevole

So what does say that I have not listened to the tapes?

BarbaraMoellmann
BarbaraMoellmann

What a load of crap. I have no intentions of listening to those tapes but it doesn't make me morally better then those who do listen to them. To even suggest that people who listen to those tapes are morally corrupt makes me wonder message Time is really trying to put out there. The Sandy Hook killings is an important part of our history and should be open to everyone to study from every prospective, including the 911 tapes. Come down off your moral high horse Time, this is a part of our collective American history...like it or not.

Byronkats
Byronkats

I think that it is so bad, i generally cant see any good that can come out of someone listening in to those tapes, it wasn;t the right decision to publish them

R4PP4
R4PP4

As humans, we all possess intellect and emotion. For some of us, knowing all we can about this tragedy, feeding our intellect, helps us deal with the horrendous emotion associated with Sandy Hook.

RIP, Little Angels

aquariusbrandy
aquariusbrandy

I absolutely agree with this piece and appreciate Kluger's points.  I did avoid any media coverage of the 911 tapes.  Not entirely as a moral issue.  More out of respect.  Any 911 tapes should be protected as private.  Unless you are investigating a crime, prosecuting a crime, defending a crime, on a jury, or next of kin, there is no reason to share such personal moments with the world.  Golden rule, I would hope that my 911 call for help would not be broadcast for the world to see.  I think a lot of times the culture is that we think we have the right to know everything about everyone (but we certainly don't want the world to know everything about us).  It is a respect issue.

MrR.
MrR.

Mr. Kluger...

If it is morally wrong to listen to the tapes, then I say it's morally questionable at the least to have listened to the 9/11 recordings. To show pictures of tragedy, etc.. 

Can you tell us how "TIME" is working to stop this morally questionable practice?

Forget it. 

Choose for yourself, and by yourself.

http://commoncts.blogspot.com/2013/12/scary-newtown-shooting-911-call.html

CarolAnnMoore
CarolAnnMoore

@MrR. You should be ashamed of yourself for postng this link.  Did you get a thrill you sick f--k?

Heizzzenberg
Heizzzenberg

Speak for yourself TIME... never entered my mind to listen to them...creepers.

DJS
DJS

@Heizzzenberg  Ditto, I didn’t appreciate the e-mail I received from Time that stated “Why YOU listened to the Newton Tapes. “Like you, I have no intention of listening to these tapes.

SarahStrohmeyer
SarahStrohmeyer

What does it say about a magazine that runs a caption about wooden angels and calls them "angles"?

Someguyintx
Someguyintx

Well Mr. Kluger, what does you're writing of this article say about you? What does the writing of hundreds of news articles and countless airtime on television covering the Sandy Hook shooting say about the moral integrity of this nations journalists? Does the media keep strumming the emotional cords of tragedy for ratings and personal gain? Or do all journalists have a slight obsession with the massacre of innocent people?

GulfPundit
GulfPundit

Oh, what would we do without the unique and superior wisdom and virtue of guys like Kluger, who can make blanket determinations as to the motivations and morality of individual behavior and translate that into arrogantly vapid social commentary. 

MichaelBaeza
MichaelBaeza

I don't see how listening to the tapes is a moral issue at all.  Personally I don't care to listen to them but I don't think it is immoral to do so.  It's not like additional children will be murdered the more we listen to the tapes or some of them will be resuscitated if we all abstain.  It's a tape of something that happened.  Wherein lies the moral issue?

consternated_citizen
consternated_citizen

@ChrisMarcus by your argument no change can occur as a result of this tragedy or else we're politicizing it. Are we to look the other way?

ChrisMarcus
ChrisMarcus

In a free and open society it is critical to have information accessible to the public. Information should not be censored just because children were involved. Should we not have watched footage of the Twin Towers falling on 9/11 because thousands of people were dying at that moment on live television? It's a double standard and I for one appreciate the freedom to listen to these tapes if I so choose to! To the gun control folks.... Shame on you for politicizing this tragedy.

democideh8r
democideh8r

@ChrisMarcus Chris, what do you expect from a socialist magazine that once called Adolf Hitler Man of the Year. Jeff is just another reporter that was indoctrinated by his professors in college. Hiding these 911 tapes is like hiding the footage of the atrocities that happen at death camps in Germany.