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Video of Navy Yard shooter raises question of public’s right to know

WASHINGTON – The video is just 31 seconds long, scarier for what it doesn’t show than what it does. In the first frame, a dark sedan pulls into a parking garage; in the second, a lanky bald man strolls into an office building, catching the door that another pedestrian has thoughtfully held open. In the ninth second, the footage goes from black and white to color, and the bald man raises something to his chest. It is a gun. He is going to kill 12 people, but we don’t see that on video.

On Wednesday afternoon, the FBI released footage of Aaron Alexis on the morning he entered Building 197 and began a 69-minute attack that ended with his own death at 9:25.

“We recognized that there is a tremendous public interest in what occurred at Navy Yard,” said Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal division. By Thursday evening, the video had received 3.8 million YouTube views, making it the second-most-watched video on the bureau’s channel. The first is the footage of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, strolling past a storefront on the morning of the Boston Marathon.

That strolling became a scary image; within hours, bombs at the finish line would kill three and injure more than 200, yet on camera the men suspected of planting them appeared calm.

In late 1999, the first images of the Columbine High School shooters, sauntering through a still cafeteria after murdering 12 of their classmates and a teacher, were played on a news station. A cafeteria became a place of fear.

The surveillance footage of the Tsarnaevs was released as a call for assistance; the brothers had not yet been identified and officials hoped that, by releasing it and photographs, viewers might recognize the dangerous suspects. But Aaron Alexis was identified on the day of the shooting at the Navy Yard. He had already been stopped and killed. The public’s help wasn’t needed. “We weighed the public’s interest and desire to know,” Hosko said at the news conference. But at what point is the desire to know merely prurient? Ten days after the attack, do we already need the film version?

“It was not something that we did unilaterally,” FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said of the decision to release the footage. “It was something we worked with other agencies on” before making the final decision. Victims and families were notified ahead of time, Bresson said.

FBI officials also said that the video was a way of dispelling inaccurate information and quashing conspiracy theories: One persistent report asserted that Alexis had used an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle; in the video, he is clearly carrying a shotgun. Other rumors speculated about a second gunman; in the video, Alexis acts alone.

The footage that is now racking up YouTube views – the small slice that officials thought the public should have access to – was edited for our own good, but that might not mean we’re shielded.

“Imagination and people filling in the blanks can be as scary as people actually seeing bodies,” said Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a Washington-based expert in disaster psychiatry. “We’ve read the coverage, blow by blow, which talks about what he did, where he went.”

We know that people are about to die, even if we don’t see it on-screen.

“I saw the Columbine tape only a few weeks ago, when we were doing a mass-shooting training,” Ritchie said. “I found that very upsetting personally – it found its way into my dreams.”