CIRCLE of club-wielding men. A helpless figure on the ground. The terrible scene has been repeated on TV like a overexposed commercial. The video of a gang-beating committed by Los Angeles police became No. 1 on the hit parade of blood-curdling clips, and it still pops up when a new angle of the story breaks. This is not the first time something has been caught on camera - unexpectedly, or at least unbeknownst to the subject - and held up to view with unplanned results and often well-earned condemnation. It happens enough to qualify as a curious but widespread product of our electronic age - what might be called the lapidary effect. It's always a little startling how easily a private action can become common knowledge - inscribed, as it were, on the public consciousness. When it happens, the results - like a lmost everything else about the media - are not readily predictable. They can be good or bad.
A few years ago, a former government figure on board a plane allegedly told a racially insensitive joke - casually and privately - to a couple of friends seated next to him. Somehow it was picked up and within hours became - deservedly, in this case - a national flap. Here was a story mumbled in the privacy of a plane cabin, suddenly flashed around the nation as if it had been announced at a press conference.
On a personal level the process can be unnerving. I used to know an overachieving wire operator (yes, they used to transmit news stories that way) whose hands never left the keyboard. You'd drop in for a mini bull session - to discuss the weather or to voice a mild gripe about the world - and all the time his fingers were furtively converting your remarks to print. The words would simultaneously appear in another city, and your half-baked comments became inter-office literature. Many other common events suggest the Orwellian danger to privacy potentially posed by electronics. I phoned a big firm the other day, and a taped voice told me the conversation would be taped. Why? Probably so corporate managers could spy on employees' phone habits (to help improve their performance, of course).
But there can be good results, too. In the public forum, the medium can provoke a corrective reaction to bad deeds. Viewers may already suspect half the horrifying things now being confirmed on the airwaves by the ubiquitous video camera. Yet seeing it on the screen allows a form of reflection seldom possible in the flesh. In Los Angeles, for instance, the gray images make the beating scene a generic expression of violence itself - nightmarish, subconscious. The action is abstract and primordial, symbol ic shadows thrown on a cave wall by an ancient fire. Are we seeing the human soul? Or are we watching a gruesome anomaly? Such questions rarely occur in the presence of the real thing, when caught up in the fearful chemistry of the moment.
But on screen, certain impressions emerge - like the way the men took turns, as if in the batting order at a baseball game. The screen makes it very hard to shake the feeling that the men considered it all in a day's work. There was such matter-of-factness. It didn't appear to be a savage venting of helpless rage of the kind that might explain the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Yet you can tire of seeing the beating scene even as it continues to strike you with undiminished horror. You're not tired of its meaning. You're tired of its ritual pattern.
There is also the danger that a truly meaningless event can become the trigger for ill-considered public policy - or that the lurking lapidary effect will encourage phoniness. That's one of the concerns raised over putting TV cameras in courtrooms.
Will camera-consciousness ultimately have a salutary effect? Will it make public figures think twice - knowing their deeds may be held up to judgment? Can footage like the 1960s clip of police dogs snapping at black protesters in the South help inhibit such tactics, since people will know that cameras are there to make such actions counterproductive - hugely offsetting any tactical advantage by bad publicity.
The philosopher Kant once proposed this yardstick for judging an action's virtue: Would you want its motivation to become a principle of action for all people? It was highly hypothetical then. Electronic media may have made it a possibility.