The Grim Summer of Abducted children.(NATION)(PRUDEN ON POLITICS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 6, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Grim Summer of Abducted children.(NATION)(PRUDEN ON POLITICS)


Byline: Wesley Pruden, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

LOS ANGELES - This is Southern California's summer of the abducted girls. It's a grim distinction shared with the nation.

Some of the girls were abducted far from here - in Missouri, in Utah, in Philadelphia - but it's here, where all American phenomena begin, that the terror lurks deepest in every parent's (and grandparent's) heart.

California has turned this terror into a safety ritual. Only this weekend, police and service organizations, such as the Masonic orders, have opened booths at county fairs and other places where children gather with their parents to offer digital scans of faces and fingerprinting to keep on file against the unexpected. The waiting lines at the booths are often very long.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will soon offer a "digital identification package" that can be stored on a compact disk, and the information can be distributed instantaneously to hospitals and police via the Internet. The center, based in Alexandria, Va., reports a doubling of calls from terrified parents since Elizabeth Smart, 13, was taken from her bed at her home in Salt Lake City earlier this summer, and, soon after, when Samantha Runnion, 5, was snatched while playing in her front yard south of Los Angeles. Samantha's little body was discovered days later and a suspect arrested; Elizabeth Smart has not been seen since she was abducted. The Runnion kidnapping in particular held much of the nation in thrall. Dozens of FBI agents were assigned to assist local cops on instructions of President Bush. Nothing becomes political more swiftly, or with more intensity, than a child in trouble.

Though other abductions followed, with a frenzy of the cable-TV network coverage that raises the national temperature with a minimum of facts and context, the FBI insists that the epidemic is one of media hysteria, not of child kidnapping.

"Stranger kidnapping," where the child and kidnapper are not acquainted, has actually declined over the past three years, from 143 in 1999 to 106 in 2000, and 93 in 2001. So far this year, 62 such kidnappings have been reported to the FBI.

"It's hard to imagine any serious danger to children that is less likely than kidnapping by a stranger," Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California who writes about how media coverage drives public anxiety, tells the Los Angeles Times. "If parents are going to worry about anything, this is not what it should be. …

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