The stark facts of Leiby Kletzky’s murder are so dreadful that they conjure up the plot of a horror film. An innocent 8-year-old boy going for a 7-block walk in an area known to be among the safest in New York. A killing and dismemberment. A grieving family and a shocked Hasidic Jewish community. A perpetrator from the closely-related Orthodox community, who had no previous record of violence.
One of the most poignant details of all is that Leiby’s abduction occurred on the boy’s first solo walk home from day camp. His parents had acceded to his request after he pleaded with them to let him, and had even rehearsed the trip with him during a trial run a few days earlier. But it was all to no avail.
For many who are old enough to remember, and especially those with ties to New York, that story has an eerily familiar ring — conjuring up another heartrending case from thirty-two years ago: the disappearance of Etan Patz, the first missing child to be featured on a milk carton, who had been on his way to the school bus stop — a distance of two blocks — when he disappeared in the spring of 1979:
It was the first time his parents had let him walk the route alone, a decision they’d agonized over. (Other kids are allowed, Etan had said. Why not me?)
There are other similarities as well. Both abductions occurred in New York, and both involved pre-adolescent Jewish boys. The most glaring difference between the two cases is that the body of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky has been found quickly and the perpetrator apprehended, while Etan Patz remains missing and presumed dead.
Both results are agonizing for the families, and are likely to remain so (unless Patz, like Jaycee Lee Dugard, miraculously surfaces one day). But assuming that Patz was killed, an earlier end to the waiting would most likely have been better for his family than the long drawn-out agony of the unknown.
That early but terrible answer was provided in the Kletzky killing thanks to the evidence on a surveillance tape, a phenomenon that did not exist in the days of the Patz disappearance but has become ubiquitous in recent years. Such tapes can tell part of the tale, but they are mute and passive. They can only bear witness after the fact, and can do little or nothing to prevent these outrages.
They are an affront to our sense of the purity of children, and a violation of our deep desire to protect them from harm. But how best to protect? Most parents issue the usual warnings, of course, but predators can be clever and are sometimes good at making themselves appear harmless, or can overpower children with their sheer strength. And yet children must some day learn to do things on their own.
The parents of Etan Patz and Leiby Kletzky wrestled with the question of when to let their children have more independence, and whether it was safe to do so. Balancing the needs for protection and autonomy for children is a task all parents must face (unless, like the witch in the tale of Rapunzel, they decide to lock them away in a tower for safekeeping). Guiding children to maturity is ordinarily accomplished bit by bit, in a series of graduated moves that end up (hopefully) with fully emancipated adult offspring. There are great perils along the way. But parents must contend with all their nightmares — ranging from the worst possibility to the more commonplace event of a temporarily lost child who is later found, but whose disappearance, however brief, gives a small taste of what it might be like for those far less fortunate.