Paul Vallely: Why we care so much about these two young girls

Empathy is one of the most distinctive human characteristics. It underlies all our codes of morality
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The Independent Online

There has been a sad fascination in watching how the nation has responded to the case of the two missing Cambridgeshire schoolgirls this week. What has been striking is the variety of the responses. Local people have searched the fields. Parents across the country have felt terrible pangs of sympathy. The newspapers have spread the story over more pages than the facts will bear. The tabloids have offered up to £1m in rewards – or bickered with other tabloids for doing so. The BBC's flagship radio news programme, Today, with dubious editorial judgement, juxtaposed the story one morning with another about the banning of long-jumps, daisy chains and other supposedly dangerous playground activities.

There has been a sad fascination in watching how the nation has responded to the case of the two missing Cambridgeshire schoolgirls this week. What has been striking is the variety of the responses. Local people have searched the fields. Parents across the country have felt terrible pangs of sympathy. The newspapers have spread the story over more pages than the facts will bear. The tabloids have offered up to £1m in rewards – or bickered with other tabloids for doing so. The BBC's flagship radio news programme, Today, with dubious editorial judgement, juxtaposed the story one morning with another about the banning of long-jumps, daisy chains and other supposedly dangerous playground activities.

It was as if the few poignant facts – the map of the girls' last known movements, a few witness statements and closed-circuit television pictures and the spot to which their mobile phone signal was traced until it faded at 1.30am – were not enough. So the Daily Mail commissioned Terry Waite to write "a captive's thoughts" on the subject of abduction, full of padding about how the girls' village of Soham is purportedly where St Felix founded a monastery in 630AD, making "this very place the centre of Latin Christianity in Cambridgeshire".

And The Sun yesterday, on the back of the fact that the girls spent 24 minutes on the computer just before they disappeared, went down the track of warnings about the dangers of internet chatrooms. Perhaps their skilled crime reporters know something the rest of us don't, or perhaps it was just another way of filling two pages and the leader column.

But it does not do to be censorious here. For what the media have exhibited is the journalistic equivalent of going off into the fields and searching. But ambivalence is an understandable response. News like this sets up in most of us an uneasy feeling that mingles both fear and thanks – the fear that these could so easily have been our children is wrapped up with the guilty feeling of "Thank God it's not".

When emotions like that swirl around in us, we lose our sense of perspective, which when it comes to questions of risk-assessment, is often fairly tenuous anyway. (If we had an inborn instinct for probability theory, no one would ever play the lottery). We know, statistically, that cases of child abduction are extremely rare and that the very few children who are harmed by adults are, in theory, far more at risk from members of their own family than from strangers on the street. Yet when two little girls vanish all that notion of proportion goes out of the emotional window.

And there is more to it than that. Empathy is one of the most distinctive human characteristics. It is in many ways what underlies all codes of morality, however philosophical or religious their phrasing. Without being able to put ourselves in the place of another, we would never be able to concern ourselves about their fates. That is why we feel more deeply for the parents of the two girls than we do for the mother of the dying Angolan child on the rush mat of the feeding centre in the next item on the TV news. This mother is further away, she speaks a different language, she is, perhaps, a different colour and what is happening to her child does not seem likely ever to become the fate of our own sons and daughters. This is our intuitive response, although it may be shocking to spell it out.

Another key human characteristic, of course, is that we can use our reason to overrule our irrational responses. That is why we need to respond by giving money to appeals for Africa just as much as we need to feel for the parents of Jessica and Holly, even if we never learn the name of the starving African child.

It is also why we may make risk-benefit judgements that in emotionally-charged times are deemed controversial. Some years ago, after a fatal crash that provoked calls for seat-belts to be compulsory in school buses, I raised some eyebrows when I suggested that I would rather my daughter took a risk in an unmodified coach than that she was deprived of the enrichment of school trips that would be cancelled because the cost of refitting the minibuses was prohibitive. It is why, even if its timing could have been better, the Today programme is right to raise questions about whether schools are risking mollycoddling children out of fear that they might be liable to be sued if anyone picks up bugs from the long-jump sandpit or the soil in which the daisies grow.

Applying cold reason to emotional impulses might also help newspaper magnates to consider whether £1m rewards will help to find the girls or hinder the police by encouraging mercenary time-wasters. Such gimmicks may spring from circulation cynicism, but newspaper bosses are as subject to working out their emotional needs as are the friends and neighbours of Holly and Jessica who set out to trample through the woods and cornfields in their determination to leave no metre of land unsearched.

The urge to act in such circumstances counters our psychological sense of impotence, and, in an age that has lost faith in prayer, it gives us at least the illusion that we might regain control of events. Even in situations where such actions are pointless, they are something that we feel compelled to do. They are an expression of what makes us human.

pvallely@independent.co.uk

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