The summer of stolen children

Have our airwaves turned into a ministry of fear?

Deep into The Lovely Bones—the new best seller by Alice Sebold—the novel’s narrator, a 14-year-old named Susie Salmon who has been raped and murdered by a serial killer, gazes down at her neighborhood from heaven. “Our house looked the same as every other one on the block,” she says, “but it was not the same. Murder had a blood red door on the other side of which was everything unimaginable to everyone.”

One can only wonder what terrible imaginings nourished the recent emotional outpouring for 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, whose abduction, violation and death prompted a funeral ceremony in which private mourning turned into a public spectacle joined by absolute strangers who drove for two days to attend. Feelings ran high at the Crystal Cathedral that evening, and had I been present, I might well have been caught up in the ecstatic display of communal grief—a true moment of catharsis in what’s being treated as the Summer of Stolen Children. But watching the funeral on TV, I could only cringe at our networks’ genius for turning sorrow into bathos.

None was more shameless than CNN, whose on-air “talent” milked the event like a stableful of demented dairy farmers. Larry King introduced Dominick Dunne with his usual delicacy: “We’re an hour away from an emotional funeral service for little Samantha Runnion. Hear his take on her awful murder.” Quoting the dead girl’s words about loving her family, reporter David Mattingly ordered the camera to zoom in on one of Samantha’s drawings. And Aaron Brown lapsed into maudlin pseudo-profundity: “This is a child who was just weeks from the second grade, who will never know the most simple things of life—a new bicycle, a first date, the anxiety of a final examination or a broken heart.”

Although the murder of a child is always especially horrible, it’s not often that one is deemed particularly newsworthy, let alone granted hour after hour of live national coverage in a world of trapped miners and beached whales. What made the Runnion case a media event was how neatly its storyline filled the needs of cable-TV news. Samantha was a cute little white girl of respectable parents (unlike Danielle van Dam) from an apparently safe neighborhood in Orange County. Her avenger was media-savvy Sheriff Mike Carona, who seemed to have stepped from Central Casting with script in hand (he dubbed her “America’s little girl”). And her tale was perfectly calibrated to satisfy our dwindling national attention span: The case didn’t drag on like that of Elizabeth Smart, stolen from her home in Salt Lake City, nor did it unfold too quickly, as happened with St. Louis’ Cassandra Williamson, whose abduction and murder 36 hours after the Runnion funeral gave viewers too little time to identify with the characters involved.

Everything about Samantha’s story made it easy for people to say, as they often did, that she had become “like our own little girl.” While such expressions of empathy from ordinary people were often touching, it was creepy getting this from broadcasters busy using the tragedy to jack up their ratings.

Of course, American broadcasters are hardly the first people to exploit a child’s death to win an audience. Back in the 1840s, Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop contained the fabled death of Little Nell, a scene of a dying girl so extravagantly mawkish that Oscar Wilde joked that you’d have to have a heart of stone to read it without laughing. But at least Dickens was a sincere sentimentalist who gave Nell a life to lose. Today’s storytellers haven’t the slightest compunction about treating dead kids as simple narrative devices—a trigger for easy emotion or shorthand for parental motivation. In the new film Sex and Lucía, a young girl is accidentally killed just so her mother can be driven to animalistic sex with a stranger. The tactic is balder still in Spielberg’s Minority Report, where a kidnapped young son becomes the excuse for Tom Cruise to believe ardently in the Department of Pre-Crime.

Still, none of this is as pernicious as the relentless news coverage of stolen children, which has turned our airwaves into a vast ministry of fear (to use Graham Greene’s famous phrase). The parents I know live in eternal dread that their briefest lapse of attention could have fatal consequences—“I’m already overprotective,” says a friend about her 7-year-old—and cable news does them no favors by making stories of kidnap and murder the wallpaper of daily life. We’re being force-fed paranoia each time a rabble-rouser like Bill O’Reilly claims that 100,000 kids are grabbed every year by strangers when the correct number is closer to 600 (welcome to the No Facts Zone!).

Nor is the damage undone when Aaron Brown declares that “we’re not in some epidemic of kidnapping” and then spends the next 15 minutes dwelling on the case of another kidnapped child. Brown’s behavior makes a mockery of his words, rather like when a woman asks her husband if he loves her and he answers “yes” without looking up from the Dodgers game.

Although the Summer of Stolen Children is a creation of excessive media coverage—an obvious kin to last year’s Summer of the Shark—the recent child kidnappings and murders actually do seem to have taken on a more frightening resonance in the aftermath of September 11. Now, nowhere feels safe. This connection appears to have been grasped by Sheriff Carona, whose initial words to the kidnapper (“We will hunt you down and arrest you”) neatly echoed President Bush’s threats to Osama bin Laden.

But heartbreak is not cured with either justice or vengeance. Anger will not save you. Indeed, this is one of the implicit themes of The Lovely Bones, which owes its popularity to being so gracefully attuned to the spiritual yearnings of a culture discovering that prosperity cannot protect you from loss. Rather than trapping us inside the unhappiness of parents tortured over losing their child, Sebold gives us the world through the voice of the young victim who looks down on Earth from an extremely pleasant heaven.

Sebold is no stranger to very bad things (her first book, Lucky, was about her brutal rape as a college student), and in The Lovely Bones Sebold tells us that those we’ve lost aren’t completely gone—“the line between the living and the dead could be … murky and blurred”—and that the dead may help the living to find peace. In a summer when our newscasts routinely make the world seem so much worse than it actually is, this winsomeness clearly strikes many readers as something of a relief. For those of us who worry constantly about all of our loved ones, The Lovely Bones offers a fleeting refuge from the most chilling possibility of cases like that of Samantha Runnion—that life’s cruelty and pain are ultimately meaningless, that our lovely bones are actually no more than bones.