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From JFK to the Dallas police, video cameras have given us evidence, but not always the truth

Arthur Reed via AP
We can witness more than ever, but witnessing alone won’t stop the killing.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It is five minutes walk from the corner of Lamar and Main streets in Dallas, where a sniper killed five police officers this week, to Dealey Plaza, where another sniper killed president John F. Kennedy in 1963. What connects these events, other than guns and geography, is the raw, grainy footage that captured each.

If the silent, 27-second film of the Kennedy assassination made by Abraham Zapruder, inadvertent witness to history, became a symbol of America in the 1960s, it was also the precursor of what has sadly become a symbol of America in the 2010s: the ever-more-frequent cellphone videos showing shocking violence toward innocent men. This week, graphic footage of the deaths of Alton Sterling (above) and Philando Castile led to the Black Lives Matter protest at which the Dallas officers were shot. At least one of the officers’ deaths was also captured on video.

Since Zapruder, technology has granted us vast increases in both the quantity and quality of these acts of witnessing. What it has not granted is greater access to truth. Just like JFK’s death, the deaths of Sterling and Castile may well remain disputed—as with the death of Eric Garner, which went unpunished despite being captured on camera in plain sight. We are still learning, painfully, that while the camera never lies, it never tells the whole truth, either.

Transparency and accountability are not the same thing. We should not confuse them, just as we should not confuse truth with evidence. Technology gives us ever more of the latter, but getting to the truth requires a very different process, which is still as susceptible to power and influence as it ever was. Until we understand and learn from that distinction, the camera footage won’t stop the killing.

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