Far too often the photos are the last we see of them: school portraits or family snapshots reproduced on blurry newsprint or flickering TV screens. The parents hold up the pictures at press conferences and tell their sad, familiar stories: one minute the child was there in a bedroom, a store, a car seat and then, in an eyeblink, she wasn't. Please help us find her. Call this number. Contact the police. And sometimes it works. Someone recognizes the photo the ponytail, the freckles, the wide brown eyes and the stolen child is found and rescued. Sometimes.
Lately we have been seeing these pictures everywhere, practically a new one every day, and sometimes at the top of national newscasts that don't usually feature such stories so prominently. In the U.S. the press coverage cyclone kicked up months ago with the kidnapping and murder of Danielle Van Dam in San Diego, California, then gained intensity with the still unsolved disappearance of Elizabeth Smart in Utah, and, incredibly, grew even fiercer with a series of cases from all over the country. The British parallels are Sarah Payne, who left a game of hide-and-seek with her siblings in July 2000 and was found dead 16 days later; Milly Dowler, still missing since her disappearance on March 21 of this year; and most recently Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, two best friends who vanished from Soham in Cambridgeshire on Aug. 4. Their bodies were reported to have been found 30 km away on Saturday, and two people were arrested in connection with the case. So many shocking stories, so suddenly a genuine crime wave or media hysteria?
Or is it that in a time of lurking new risks over which people feel largely powerless terrorist cells in the suburbs, underground Iraqi bioweapons labs a fixation on solvable, specific mysteries is strangely soothing? The public may not yet have made much of a difference capturing terrorists, but thanks to mass alerts that deputized thousands of citizens at a stroke, it has succeeded in bringing home a child or two. At least it's something. At least it makes a dent.
Exactly how big a dent is hard to know. The statistics on child abductions are unreliable, unable to settle the matter of whether such crimes are growing more common, or even how widespread they are. The figures depend on the vagaries of local police reports that classify disappearances differently sometimes as murders, sometimes as other things such as rape, depending on the circumstances of the crime.
The fear and confusion unleashed by the abduction stories can't be expressed as math. Its power is primal, as gripping as an empty crib. Journalists know this: imperiled children mesmerize. There aren't many stories with villains so wholly evil and victims so absolutely undeserving. Little wonder that within moments of a snatching, across countless radios, televisions and even electronic highway signs, the kidnapping stories have a new immediacy. They call for involvement, not just outrage. They enlist the audience as participants, and even potential heroes.
Still, one wonders if the abduction reports are a runaway habit whose internal momentum can get the best of reporters and editors, flattening all else that lies before it: stories of war and preparations for war, of corruption among the Úlites, of floods and droughts. What, no kidnapped kids today? Well, find some!
That they're far too easy to find is undeniable. Still, there are other children in danger's path harmed and neglected in a thousand ways that don't offer melodramatic storylines or a chance for TV viewers to play detective whose photos will never be passed around at press conferences, and whose names will never be flashed above a freeway. While we may not know if the number of kidnapped children is rising, there is another figure the number of kids abandoned by parents, dumped onto social services or left in the care of irresponsible adults that is on the increase. That these children don't rate headlines is perhaps natural. To disappear, a kid must first exist, must be cherished by someone, cared about at least enough for someone to snap her photo. Remaining forgotten, though, is not a story.
It would be nice if, when the next alert goes out, rousing the public's justifiable outrage and the media's sometimes questionable interest, it might trigger a wider, silent alarm as well for the kids who can't disappear because they are already lost