Leading Article: The pleasure of a happy ending

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AS THE dust settles over the kidnapping and later recovery of Abbie Humphries, there are urgent questions to be asked - about the techniques used by the police in their attempt to find the missing baby, about the use of newspapers and television to try to persuade the baby's abductor to return her, and about the intervention by members of the public that was apparently responsible for the child's recovery.

It is worth pausing, however, to reflect on the profound effect that the story and its reporting has had on the country as a whole - and to ask why Britain should have been so moved by the tale of baby Abbie.

The most obvious explanation lies in the very defencelessness of the victim and her parents. Nothing speaks to us more strongly of innocence than a newborn baby - and nobody cries out louder for our sympathy than a mother who has undergone the pain and trauma of pregnancy and birth, only to have her reward snatched away within a few hours. Every parent in the land sympathised with Karen Humphries, and shuddered at the thought of undergoing the trial that she has just suffered.

But there is a paradox in public attitudes to the kidnapper. Despite the horror of the crime, the feelings of emptiness and need that may have prompted someone to take away another person's baby also demand sympathy. Anyone who has yearned for a child but has been unable to have one will remember the sensation of desperation that this can engender.

In refreshing contrast to so many of the crimes reported in newspapers and on the television news, the Abbie story brings a sense of hope to our society. However warped the thinking of her kidnapper may have been, the baby was abducted not so that she could be harmed, but so that she could be loved. This gave newspaper readers and television viewers reason for optimism. Although Abbie was missing for 16 days in all, the circumstances of her disappearance meant that there was a far greater chance that she would be found than is generally the case with other abducted children.

So, for a few moments at least, a public that regularly shares only horror at crime can enjoy the collective pleasure of a happy ending. This happens all too rarely. It would be wise to savour an outcome that no one, having been a child or a parent, can fail to appreciate.