In a supermarket in Maine there is a poster of a girl. It says that she is missing. There are other such faces: boys and girls, 3 years old, 11 years old, 8 years old, hanging like "the most wanted" in public places. Some are on the highway toll gates, others on the Chicago subways, milk cartons and gas bills. All of them are missing.
In New Jersey last winter, they began fingerprinting 44,000 school children. At Tufts University, they developed a technique for toothprints. These are in case, just in case, children are ever missing.
Over the past year or more, the alarm about the abduction of children has been raised everywhere: a television special or two, a talk show or a hundred, a hotline (Dial 800-THE-LOST). Congress declared a National Missing Children's Day. The media rounded up the usual statistics: 1.5 million children missing, 50,000 a year abducted.
It has taken all this time for the facts to catch up with our bleakest fears.
Now, just now, we hear that there are not 50,000 children a year abducted by strangers. Child Find in New York has altered their estimate to 600 such kidnappings, and the FBI says 67 were reported in 1984. Nor are there 1.5 million missing children in this country. The FBI estimates, rather, 32,000.
Among the missing, the overwhelming majority -- two-thirds, three-quarters, 90 percent (there are different figures from different people) -- are runaways and, as they say now, throwaways. Of the rest, perhaps as many as 90 percent have been taken by one parent from another in a disintegrating family.
Are those children all at risk? Absolutely. But this is not the fear that grips most parents who let a child walk to school for the first time, who leave the children alone in the house, who lose a preschooler in the shopping center, who wait for a child to come home from school, and wait and wait. It is the strangers that we fear.
It is impossible to exaggerate the pain of those parents who have lost a child. It is incalculable, inconsolable. But it is easy to exaggerate the risk, and in these months, the fear has been fanned out of all proportion to the reality.
I think it's worth asking why. Why, now, is there such a receptive audience for this primal anxiety? It isn't just the misused statistics that causes an epidemic of concern. There must be some particular vulnerability in parents today.
The terror of losing a child is a staple of mythology as well as nightmares. Village folklore was full of stories about strangers who stole children. Gypsies were the vagrants and suspects. In those days, communities were tight enough that the only strangers were rootless outsiders.
Today, more and more of us are outsiders, strangers on our own streets. The cities are bigger, neighborhoods less stable. The ratio of strangers to friends, strangers to families has changed dramatically. This is, I think, at the root of our insecurity.
In this same world, we routinely place our children in the hands of people we hardly know. The doctor at the clinic, the teacher at school, the swimming counselor, the bus driver. It is not a coincidence that the fear of child abduction is heightened at a time when more of us leave small children in day care outside their home and family than ever before.
When we tell our children -- as we must -- to beware of strangers, the number of people wearing that label is much larger than it once was. The more time they spend away from us, the more unknown their world, the more easily our anxiety can be tapped.
The victims of abduction deserve their priority, deserve all the sophisticated methods of discovery in our arsenal. But the victims of hysteria should wonder about the strangeness of our lives. Fear grows irrationally in a world without communities where we know the names of children only when they appear on a milk carton, on a toll booth or on a poster at a supermarket.