SMILE – OR NOT – IT’S STILL A CANDID CAMERA

Two weeks back, it was a dog being thrown into a ditch. Last week, it was a toddler being sprayed at a car wash.

This week, who knows?

I am talking about the now almost-daily phenomenon in which an Internet video circles the world, prompting outrage, scorn, even death threats – before anyone knows the real story.

Let’s begin with the dog.

Recently, someone somewhere posted a video of two soldiers, apparently in Iraq, dressed in full combat gear, looking into the camera as one holds up a puppy. They coo “cute little puppy.” Then the soldier flings the dog off a cliff. You hear a yelping sound, then the animal lands with a thud. The second soldier says, “That was mean.”

End of video.

Now, I have no idea if the dog is real, fake, alive or dead. It looks real. But this is not high-quality footage. Nonetheless, it was posted, and the doggie poo hit the fan.

Someone figured out who the flinging soldier was and the address and phone number of his family was put on the Web. The family reportedly was harassed with calls and threats, the Marines had to issue a statement, animals rights groups issued statements, cyberspace burned with angry denouncements of soldiers, Americans in general, our foreign policy in Iraq, you name it.

A 15-second video. An incident at the car wash

Then came the car wash. Perhaps you’ve seen this one. A surveillance camera catches a mother in an Orlando car wash, using the portable pressure hose to spray her young daughter intermittently, while yelling at her. She sprays her. Yells. Sprays some more. The little girl appears to be crying, but again, it’s a blurry surveillance camera. Things are not clear.

But they were clear enough for the Internet, which exploded. Viewers wanted the woman charged, arrested, the child taken away. TV stations ran stories. Police investigated. In the end, the woman actually called in on her own – after seeing the video on her local news – and invited authorities to her home, where they discovered, according to news reports, no physical injuries to the child. The mother admitted what she had done, said she hadn’t done it before, and said she had been disciplining the child who had become unruly.

Nonetheless, as of this writing, she still could be charged with child abuse. And there is no cooling off the heated self-righteousness cyberspacers, who want the child removed from her mother right away.

Meanwhile, the video can be seen – for your scorn or your amusement – on more Web sites than you could count. Watch what you’re doing

Now, I am not condoning either act – not the dog fling, not the hosing. Neither was smart or necessary. Both seem cold, cruel, even deplorable.

But I wonder where we are going when every moment of every life is filmed. When people are caught in ugly acts by cameras – and when people stage ugly acts for cameras. Human beings probably were not behaving much differently 20 years ago. But everything is on tape or video now. It’s Big Brother in nickel-size lenses.

Is the world a better place when the worst of us can be viewed on a regular basis? What about the mother who slaps her child at the grocery store? Or the guy who kicks a dog at a family picnic? Done at home, these may be negative acts, but they are private. Done where there are cameras, they can be shown around the world.

Maybe you think this is good. Maybe you think the threat of exposure will make people behave better. I don’t. I worry when the world wants to weigh in on snips of video. I worry about the bad habit of hasty judgment. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but the truth may require 100,000.

Two weeks back, it was a dog. Last week, a wet toddler. But if next week it’s you, you may want to tell your side of the story, only to find your 15 seconds are up.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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