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December 17, 2007

Blame Game: The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

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In Kate McCann's case, newspaper and TV commentators, most of them female, have heaped abuse on everything from her clothes to her figure to her exercise routine. How could she jog when she had lost a child? Why did she and her husband employ a PR adviser? As doctors, did they drug their kids to make them sleep at night? In September, Irish comedian Patrick Kielty joked that if Kate had really wanted to get rid of her daughter's body, she should have checked Madeleine as luggage on low-cost airline Ryanair.

Suddenly, everyone was a psychologist, citing a study that claimed that 80 percent of children murdered are killed by their parents — while ignoring another that showed that the majority of these killers are stepparents. And everybody became an armchair detective. Anne Enright, the winner of Britain's top literary award, the Booker Prize, admitted in the London Review of Books that "disliking the McCanns is an international sport" — one that she herself had joined in, she realized, when she found herself using Google Earth to study the area around the McCanns' Portugal apartment while pondering just how far one could carry a child's body.

Why all this rage toward Kate McCann?

For a generation brought up on detective dramas and conspiracy theories, "distrust the obvious" has become our mantra. Indeed, the tendency now is not just to ignore the rational answer, but to believe the most outlandish theory, which is how you find sensible people believing that the Twin Towers were brought down by the CIA or that the moon landings were faked. Or that a loving mom murdered her own child, concealed the crime, and then managed to dispose of the body while her every move was tracked on international TV.

Most of all, though, the treatment of Kate McCann exposes our conflicted attitudes toward mothering. In progressive places like America and the U.K., women have the right to work. But when something bad happens to a child, our most primitive instincts return, and we find the mom guilty for letting the child out of her sight.

Ultimately, our treatment of Kate has come to haunt us here in Britain: We are almost as fascinated by our reaction to the case as we are by the case itself. What does it say about us, morally, that we are so quick to distrust the common-sense explanation in favor of the twisted one? Why do we all have opinions on the best way to kill a child? And perhaps most important of all: Why are we all still blaming Mom?

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