“Pray for Madeleine” reads the strapline below the masthead of The Sun. We’re a fortnight into the abduction of three-year-old Madeleine McCann, who vanished from a resort at Praia de Luz, Portugal, while her parents were dining at a tapas bar about 100 metres away.
Since that time, the small blonde girl and her big blonde mother have been staring out at us from the newsstand. Though the story began as just another holiday horror, it quickly gathered pace. First there were questions about the efficiency of the Portuguese police, who seem to have been as dozy as police forces often are anywhere, but which allowed for a few satisfying days of blaming the wogs.
Then there was the mother, Kate McCann, who is a tall statuesque blonde and has never been off the front pages since this was realised — a photo of her clutching a child’s toy has become iconic. Callous? Yes, but that’s how every front-page editor’s been talking about it for the past 14 days.
Even better, the couple were strict Catholics and arranged for a service at the local church, which was full to bursting. Kate McCann asked everyone — in the world, potentially, via the news — to pray for her discovery, and who amongst can say we didn’t feel some tug of thought towards whatever trace remnant of belief within us. Not I, not anyone I asked about it. By now people were flying to Portugal to help search, and two millionaires had stumped up £1m rewards. Whole church services were being devoted to the event, and the story has been taken as inspirational — “The McCanns inspire us with their strength” raves the Daily Mail.
One would have thought that their tragedy renews us with a sense of catharsis, pity and fear, but the Mail has probably caught the public mood. Why has this case taken off, when so many others pass through a few days and then disappear into anonymity? Not simply because it’s a blonde white girl and family, though that’s part of it.
It’s the combination of that angelic aspect, with the superstitious — the sense that intercessionary prayer might help — with the weakness of the state, as represented by the police, that gives the whole thing its charge.
The McCanns’ tragedy strikes a chord with many because it represents, in ghastly form, the collapse of public meaning in so many lives. Not only the state, but any sense of a society seems to have disappeared as, for many, has the prospect of having some control over their lives. Into that vacuum has rushed superstition and wealth, whether it’s prayer for success or creationism, whether it’s private rewards or Bill Gates curing malaria from his own chequebook.
A story like Madeleine McCann’s disappearance concentrates that all in one place and plays it back in a way that makes us feel, for a moment, that it all makes sense and we’re all in this together. Thus, as Mick Hume notes, child abduction has become a spectator sport.
News of a neighbour being questioned by police is breaking as I write. If they find the child safe and sound, what on earth will we do then?