Invasion of the Baby Snatchers

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DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES

A California freeway sign flashes as part of the "Amber Alert" program

Too damned 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 the blink of an eye, she wasn't. Please help us find her. Call this number. Contact the FBI. 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. The press coverage cyclone kicked up months ago with the kidnapping and murder of Danielle Van Dam in San Diego, then gained in 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. So many shocking stories, so suddenly — a genuine crime wave or media hysteria?


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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 whether such crimes are growing more common or even how widespread they are. The Justice Department estimates that the number of children taken by strangers annually is between 3,000 and 4,000. The figures aren't firm; they 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. What's more, with the adoption by several states of so-called Amber Alerts — emergency bulletins named after a murdered Texas girl that can go out, 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. Come join the posse.

There's a saying among recovering alcoholics about how addiction reinforces itself: "The man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man ..." One wonders if the abduction reports are a runaway habit whose internal momentum can get the best of reporters and editors, flattening everything else that lies before it: stories of war and preparations for war, of corruption among the elites, of floods and droughts. What, no kidnapped kids this morning? Well, find some!

That such stories are 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 story lines 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 whether the number of kidnapped kids is rising, there is another figure — the number of children on public assistance whose checks go directly to them, not through a parent, because often no parent exists to open them — that is indisputably on the increase. That these kids don't rate headlines is perhaps natural. To disappear, a child 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.