The ups and downs of empathy for Madeleine

21st May 2007, Comments 0 comments

21 May 2007, London/Madrid (dpa) - The Norwegian tourist is in no doubt about the little girl she spotted at a petrol station while on holiday in Morocco. "That was Madeleine, the sweet little girl," she told police, recounting how the child had asked the dark-haired man accompanying her "can I see mummy soon?" At the time the incident had rung no alarm bells. But back in Europe two weeks later, as the woman saw television pictures of missing British four-year-old Madeleine McCann and appeals for her safe

21 May 2007

London/Madrid (dpa) - The Norwegian tourist is in no doubt about the little girl she spotted at a petrol station while on holiday in Morocco.

"That was Madeleine, the sweet little girl," she told police, recounting how the child had asked the dark-haired man accompanying her "can I see mummy soon?"

At the time the incident had rung no alarm bells. But back in Europe two weeks later, as the woman saw television pictures of missing British four-year-old Madeleine McCann and appeals for her safe return, she reported the sighting to police.

As disturbing as the image of the Morocco encounter may be, for the investigators probing the case it is but one of an unending stream of claimed sightings of Madeleine, from various nations, that have poured in since her May 3 disappearance.

The abduction of the little girl has prompted a wave of global sympathy, with citizens, celebrities and companies clamouring to help in whatever way they can.

A concrete lead has however so far failed to materialize.

Even as the gaze of suspicion falls any man in the company of a young, blonde-haired daughter or granddaughter, so grows the fear that little Maddy may remain forever lost, just like hundreds more European children do every year.

On Sunday, 17 days after the wide-eyed youngster was taken from her bed in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz, the intensive campaign to find Madeleine forged ahead. A website set up as part of the awareness effort had registered more than 80 million hits.

Despite this however, the first international camera crews covering the story on the ground in Praia da Luz were beginning to pack away their equipment. "The story is dead if nothing happens soon," said one British reporter.

A film of Madeleine, to the soundtrack of Simple Minds' Don't You Forget About Me, was broadcast on two giant screens in the revamped Wembley Stadium during Saturday's FA Cup English soccer final.

The film reduced 90,000 football fans to silence - for nearly two minutes at least.

Experts say parents can react in different ways to the abduction of a child. Many shun the media, unwilling to show their pain or perhaps fearful that the kidnappers may be forced into and unpredictable bargaining process.

Others however turn to the public for aid, normally through the mass media.

The latter tactic seems to have produced tangible results in the United States, where since 2003 the public can be speedily notified, via various media outlets, of a confirmed child abduction via the "Amber Alert" system.

Named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996, the acronym Amber also stands for "America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response."

However experts say that such a large-scale and sometimes hectic search effort can also at times be damaging. In the US, the decision of whether or not to issue an Amber Alert lies solely in the hands of the police.

In Madeleine's case it was her parents behind the mobilization of millions - with a helping hand from Harry Potter author JK Rowling and soccer superstar David Beckham, as well as a flood of financial donations from the public and offers of aid from dozens of international firms including British Petroleum, McDonalds and Vodafone.

Kate and Gerry McCann, both 38, have themselves been taken by surprise by the unprecedented global wave of empathy, and also perhaps by the fact that some critical reaction has also been registered in Portugal.

"The abduction has become a spectacle," said media expert Professor Francisco Rui Cadima.

The head of the Portuguese national criminal investigation department, Alipio Ribeiro, meanwhile regards the investigation as having been endangered by the blanket media coverage.

Driving instructor Fatima Campos Ferreira however disagrees with Ribeiro, pointing out that the media spotlight ensures that pressure remains on the Portuguese authorities.

"Unfortunately things in Portugal only work when there is pressure like this," she says.

Ferreira can claim to know how Madeleine's parents are feeling, and at one time could well have used such support - nine years ago, when her son disappeared while riding his bicycle, never to return.

"But I am neither an English woman nor a doctor, and it did not happen on the Algarve, where so many foreign tourists are," she said.

DPA

Subject: German news

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