The world is a very odd place. If the news isn’t about every children’s entertainer you’ve ever heard of being arrested for paedophiliac activities, it’s about the reappearance of kidnap victims after years and years of captivity. Today we learn that three women and a child have been rescued from a house where the adults — Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michele Knight — had been held prisoner for over a decade: (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22430145). In recent years, we’ve also seen the return of Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, Elisabeth Fritzl et al., and probably others.
I’m bemused. How do the perpetrators of these crimes get away with it for as long as they do? Why does no one catch them in the act or grow suspicious after only a few days or weeks? If I try and do anything at all clandestine, you can be sure that the world and his wife will be standing by, watching and finger-wagging. Not that I’ve ever tried kidnapping or abusing anyone, you understand; my sins are of a much lower level — sneaking a piece of cake when I’m on a diet, pleading too much work as an excuse to get out of an unappealing social event and then being seen in the pub, or proclaiming my intention of having an early night but proving myself a liar by commenting on Facebook two hours later —I invariably get caught.
OK, maybe it’s because my misdeeds are so slight that I’m less meticulous in hiding them — a ‘Tut tut, I thought you were trying to lose weight’ or ‘Is this your idea of working all night to meet that deadline?’ or ‘In bed before midnight, huh?’ may cause embarrassment or require grovelling apologies on my part, but that’s hardly in the same league as running the risk of a life sentence in jail (or, in some countries, the death penalty). Indeed, I am not trying to suggest that rape, kidnap, and child molestation are in any way comparable to piggery, excuse-making, and fibbing. However, the fact remains that if someone always sees my mild naughtiness — why does no one ever see their egregious wickedness? Or do people see and choose to stay silent? I have, it’s true, heard ‘Well, I didn’t think anyone would believe me’ offered as an excuse for not having raised the alarm in the Jimmy Savile affair; and ‘I thought it was a domestic and didn’t want to get involved’ as justification for allowing one of the kidnap victims (I forget which) to remain at the mercy of her captors for so long. Yeah, right. Either these people saw and suspected nothing (hard to believe) and are simply jumping on the bandwagon and seeking their fifteen minutes of fame (easy to believe), or they are every bit as much monsters as the perpetrators of the crimes — for who, other than a monster, could think ‘Oh, that famous TV presenter is raping that poor nine-year-old, but it’ll be my word against his, so I’ll just let him get on with it’ or fail to intervene even if he did believe that ‘That girl, whom I’ve never seen before but my neighbour is claiming to be his niece, looks suspiciously like that kid who was snatched on her way home from school; but she’s probably just crying and screaming and covered in bruises because she’s homesick’?
Until recently I lived in a small town in northern Spain. Everyone there knows everyone else — and everyone else’s business. When my dog died, complete strangers came up to me to commiserate; when I lost weight, women I’d never met wanted to know how I’d done it; and when I employed an assistant, the grapevine was a-thrum with the news. Some may find such close scrutiny oppressive, but I always found it reassuring. It’s nice to know that if you’re too ill to leave the house, word will get round and someone will come to your door to check that you’re still alive and go to the supermarket for you. Crime there is minimal — a lone woman can wander the streets at night without feeling in any way threatened and, if you leave your car unlocked, it’ll still be there, as will its contents, when you return — because how can you steal someone’s wallet when your victim is bound to be best friends with your sister or your mum or grandma, or proudly pull out your ill-gotten satnav when the person you’re showing it to will say ‘Oh, so that’s where it went! My brother’s girlfriend’s mother’s neighbour had that nicked only last Thursday’ and promptly take it from you? Imagine, then, how quickly the news of paedophile activity would spread there, or of new people being locked in basements. Gossip, and with it, action and intervention would be rife.
Communities like that do still exist, but they seem to be falling into decline, promoting social isolation and anomie. A neighbour of the kidnapper in today’s case expressed his horror at what had been happening next door to him for so long and told reporters that he and the kidnapper had had barbecues together and been on good terms. Perhaps… But an occasional barbecue and passing the time of day over the garden fence do not a friendship make. Nowadays we seem to regard superficial bonhomie as an acceptable substitute for real intimacy and trust; we no longer know the people around us, and we tend to prefer it if they don’t know us — and that’s very sad.