Matthew Norman: Madeleine and the paradox of our emotions

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The Independent Online

On and on and on it goes, remorseless in its gruesome fascination, unyielding in its seductive impenetrability, interminable in its obsessing curiosity. You come home, and the first thing you do is check Ceefax or the net for an update. You go out, and whether it's the dinner table, the poker table, the supermarket check-out or the bus, there is no escape from constant theorising about the latest semi-news from the Algarve or Leicestershire. Not that we seek refuge. Quite the contrary, we are as contentedly institutionalised in the world of Madeleine McCann as an octogenarian lifer in prison.

Even those who lack the Portuguese to thank a waiter with a breezy obrigado, intone the word "arguido" with the practised ease of a natural-born lusophone. The stuffed toy now wanted by police, according to one report yesterday (although denied elsewhere), to assist with their forensic enquiries has developed a persona of its own, the quote marks long since replaced by upper case letters, as if Cuddle Cat were a global cartoon favourite on a par with alliterative animations such as Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck. People are more familiar with the foible in the little girl's features than in those of their own children – that peculiarly beautiful and affecting downward leak of pigment from the right pupil into the iris to form that aptest of letters, a capital "q".

The questions pile up by the day, and – although we are all of us psychologists and criminologists now, and experts on the distinctions between British and Portuguese sub-judice etiquette, the schematic lay-out of the Mark Warner complex, and the reliability of degraded DNA material – the answers will not come. Could anyone, let alone an experienced doctor, give an almost four-year-old an accidentally lethal overdose of a child sedative? Could any mother contrive the sociopathic froideur of a Medea, relaxedly sipping wine with friends minutes after killing her daughter and hiding the body? Where do you stash a cadaver in an unfamiliar, broiling country for weeks without anyone noticing? What, if anything, might be inferred from Gerry McCann's unbidden press conference proclamation that he and his wife have absolute faith in each other's innocence? Is there something disturbing about his cheery over-use of exclamation marks in a daily blog that mingles, sometimes within a paragraph, the abundantly poignant with the folksily mundane ("Kate and I popped into church for 10 minutes to pray for Madeleine," he wrote on the third of this month. "Sean and Amelie certainly enjoyed their auntie's dinner – sometimes it is hard to beat mince and 'tatties'!").

Meanwhile, this week, for the first time since May, one senses a clear shift of tonal emphasis in the public debate. During what will be an uneasy hiatus between the McCanns' unveiling as formal suspects and the judge deciding whether or not to lay charges, the questioning here moves towards the introspective: specifically, what does our fixation with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann tell us about ourselves?

According to London mayoral candidate Boris Johnson, taking a moment from fretting about bendy buses to ponder the matter yesterday, it tells us that we have become prurient and addicted to schadenfreude – unedifying qualities which a rapacious tabloid press adroitly nurtures. But the human tendency to appropriate the tragedies of others is hardly new. Billy Wilder satirised it with brilliant brutality 56 years ago with Ace In The Hole, in which Kirk Douglas's boozy, washed-up hack revives his career when a miner becomes trapped underground. Within days he has parlayed the story into a national media feeding frenzy. Within a week a township has sprouted around the site, with people driving across America in their Winnebagos to have a camping holiday and immerse themselves in the melodrama.

As we were reminded 10 years ago, in those astounding days between the death of Diana and her funeral, a shared sense of shock and distress quickly mutates into something like muted enjoyment ... not of the suffering of others, by and large, or their perceived moral inferiority; but of feeling somehow involved in a great human drama which, for all its attendant horror, is desensitised by our lack of acquaintance with those at its centre.

It is absurd to imagine that our stocks of empathy outweigh our natural self-protective dispassion. If they did, who could function without industrial doses of anti-depressants for months after watching a report of African famine? Today there are no doubt a fair few radio phone-in nasties and tabloid tricoteuses knitting together their outlandish theories in avid anticipation of the day when hard evidential fact bursts the dam of inconclusivity, and lets their perplexing spite towards the McCanns flood forth. A large and less vocal majority, I hope and suspect, fervently wishes for the best; but finds its intrigue with this surreally captivating mystery overwhelming jaded sympathy for the feelings of the family. We may feel guilty for that, but not so guilty that we make much effort to reverse the balance.

None of this speaks of anything sinister about modern Britain's journey to hell, as one brother columnist might have it, in a handcart. All it does is remind us that humans are paradoxical emotional creatures, capable of weeping for the suffering of others when it is fresh, and of being amused by observations about the events that caused that anguish once it has staled.

An old formula has it that comedy equals tragedy plus time. The possibility of Kate McCann being falsely tried has been likened to Lindy Chamberlain's wrongful conviction for murdering her daughter in the Australian outback. A few years after the conviction was quashed, the two best American sitcoms of recent years both had their female lead (Daphne in Frasier and Seinfeld's Elaine) getting a laugh from impersonating Mrs Chamberlain's scream, "A dingo took my baby!". Already one comedian, the dark genius Jerry Sadowitz, is including a Madeleine McCann segment in his act. After a more seemly interval, others will follow.

Somewhere between Mr Sadowitz at one end of the sentimental spectum and those who parade their empathetic anguish a little too glibly at the other, neither condemning the McCanns as criminals nor dismissing the Portuguese detectives as malevolent buffoons, are the rest of us. If we can accept even the remotest possibility that two doctors colluded in covering up the killing of a beloved child for which one was unwittingly responsible, we must also accept that our reactions to this extraordinary story are diffuse, complex and in part not especially palatable.

There comes a point in the dynamic of any dreadful event, if it lingers long enough, when appalled fascination gives way to ill-disguised relish. Perhaps we reached that point with Madeleine McCann this week. If so, it is self-deceiving to blame the media, however febrile and irresponsible that may be. The fault, if fault it is, lies in ourselves.