Buried in the archives of the Baltimore Sun is a newspaper clipping of a story that its author, H.L. Mencken, dubbed “The greatest story since the Resurrection”. A two year old child had apparently vanished into the night. A nation turned into armchair detectives, some appointed themselves judge and jury, along the way dispensing with the need for ‘evidence’ to match judicial standards – their belief in the truth of the ‘pick and mix’ snippets daily leaked by the media was sufficient to condemn the parents. The parents were on trial long before the perpetrator.
The parents were wealthy middle class professionals, the embodiment of the American dream. They employed a Nanny. The Nanny made two hour checks on the sleeping child. ‘Why so infrequent’? cried the onlookers, ‘I check on my child every ten minutes’. “I look after my child myself’. Everybody had a point of view, an opinion. Some of those opinions were termed beliefs. Mencken was right to make the religious allusion to the Resurrection, for as with all religious beliefs, there were few provable facts in the story, but many disparate theories that one could draw together to make a ‘truth’ that you held hard to.
The Police were initially inept, unprepared for the firestorm of attention that would rage for the next 80 years on the activities of those local men in police uniforms who were charged with making the initial investigation. The forensic examination for fingerprints was marred by the sheer mass of people who arrived, police, media, friends and well wishers, all tramping through the scene. The parents made many unwise decisions, forging relationships with anybody and everybody they thought could help. All these relationships were later dissected and scorned by those who had not been in the parent’s position themselves, but were absolutely, resolutely, sure that they knew what would have been the ‘right’ thing to do, what they would have done, what should have happened if the world had turned to their command.
The Lindberg‘s, for it was their child, were ‘lucky’ in one sense, in that their child was found two months later. Unlucky, devastatingly unlucky, in that the child was dead. Would they have gone on to believe that their child was alive, hopefully happy somewhere, if not with them, had the child not been found? I would think so. There, see, I have an opinion too. Is it logical to believe that the child you cannot see is dead, harmed in some way? You may fear that, it might cross your mind from time to time, but the belief that there is still hope is the only comfort you can hold onto.
Today marks five years since the second coming (sic) of the ‘greatest story since the Resurrection’. Another child went missing in the night. Madeleine McCann. In between, many other children have gone missing, even from Portuguese beachside resorts, yet none have captured the imagination of the watching public in the same way.
None have created such a perfect media storm. No other case has left us knowing so many intimate details of the parent, rather than the child. Google Madeleine McCann and you will get over 31 million responses. 31 million times people have sat at their computer and written her name. That’s the entire population of Canada, 31 million!
Among those 31,000,000 there are countless millions of entries purporting to prove that either Madeleine is dead – there is no proof, merely their ‘belief’; and countless entries purporting to prove that she is alive – there is no proof, merely their ‘belief’. What is striking about the McCann saga is the vitriol and vehemence with which each side condemns the other. Neither side ‘knows’ anything, and yet they are prepared to fight to the death, and certainly into the libel courts to prove that their belief represents the ‘truth’.
None has gained as much currency as the views of the policeman who was in charge of the initial investigation. Gonçalo Amaral. His working hypothesis became that ‘the child was dead’, and the parents were to blame. He viewed the parents as arguidos, the Portuguese equivalent of ‘persons of interest’, not charged, but under suspicion. It was a reasonable hypothesis, there were many unexplained details, but hypothesis is all it was, and the Attorney-General of Portugal refused to go to trial on that basis.
After six months, Amaral was removed from the case. There were other cases proceeding against him and the men under him, and it wasn’t a happy situation to have the man in charge of the investigation under suspicion himself – particularly not when the other cases also involved his suspicion of a Mother whose child had never been found. Amaral went onto write a book about his first six months in charge of the investigation, and unfortunately chose to call it ‘Maddie, The Truth of the Lie’. He explained in detail his theory of why he thought ‘it was the parent’s what did it’. That book has divided the watching armchair detectives as never before.
Amaral has now pointed out that ‘the book deals with six months of the investigation and the conclusions at the time so the investigation needed to continue. The truth is only known when an investigation is finished’. Amaral’s own words, taken from a helpful translation of his recent Panorama interview. Yet that book has been treated as though it is ‘the truth’ written on tablets of stone, by people around the world who have made it their business to harry the McCann’s mercilessly quite content to risk prison sentences to make their opinions, their beliefs, accepted by the ‘non-believers’.
Some of the cases linked to above relate to people well known to me; they have been around since the very earliest days of Madeleine’s disappearance, when I was moderating on a forum that clocked up a regular 1,500 comments a day, every day – comments, not hits! They would be on-line from early morning to late at night – not obsessed with finding Madeleine and discovering beyond doubt what had happened to her and who was responsible, that would be a reasonable enough obsession, but obsessed with proving that their belief, their reading of the various media reports represented the truth and that anybody who disagreed with them must be punished in some way. It was not ‘the truth’ they were pursuing, but acceptance of their views.
Today the McCann’s will be out and about on the airwaves, continuing to push for the case to be re-opened. A somewhat unusual course of action for allegedly guilty parties, but that is as may be. The media will be rehashing old stories in an attempt to redress some snippet of information as an exclusive story. The lawyers will be sharpening their fangs. The Forum Furies will be whacking each other over the head with insults and ‘outings’. The politicians will be attempting to placate each other for past insults hurled via the media. The British police claim to be in possession of 193 new ‘opinions’ and alleged sightings, known in police parlance as ‘leads’. Scarcely surprising that the Portuguese won’t reopen the case until someone comes up with some concrete evidence. Evidence, not a report from a British tourist in Tibuktu who is sure that they might have, possibly, they think, seen a blonde girl five years ago but didn’t think to mention it until the Daily ****** waved their cheque book…..
And Madeleine won’t be home with her family. Five years later. 31,000,000 articles. And still no one has anything better than an ‘opinion’ as to what happened to her. In a final irony, even the new picture released of Madeleine is only an ‘opinion’ of what she might look like now.
I sometimes wonder whether either the media or the Internet would survive the solving of the ‘Maddie saga’.