Conscientious parents may differ on where to draw the line. Some people criticized Etan Patz’s parents for letting him walk those two blocks to the bus stop alone, and for giving in to his pleading, even in those more innocent-seeming days. Etan’s mother Julie found that she “was remonstrated by strangers when they recognized her on the street; they accused her of negligence for letting Etan walk to the bus stop alone the day he was abducted, and flat-out told her that his disappearance was all her fault.”
Such cruelty to the victim is almost unconscionable, although it speaks to our need to think we are in control of such things. But we are not. In rare instances, despite appropriate parental caution, evil will befall a child.
I use the word “rare” because, although such cases draw our attention because of their strong emotional valence, they are far less common than one might think. For example, statistics indicate that in 1997 there were 115 kidnappings of this type, in which 40% of the victims were killed.
But for those parents whose children are victims, these statistics offer scant comfort. What does offer comfort? How do such parents cope?
With great difficulty, and each journey is no doubt different. Among the observant — such as the Hasidic community of which Leiby Kletzky’s parents are a part — religion can be of help. Leiby’s bereft and grieving father demonstrated this by giving thanks at the funeral for the years of his son’s life, saying “God gives and God takes.”
But many people have no such belief system — or, if they do, they find themselves questioning and doubting their previous faith. They ask, along with Tom Waits in the despairing chorus of his song “Georgia Lee,” which is a cry of anguish about a murdered girl, “Why wasn’t God watching?…Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”
The song asks the question but provides no answers. Believers might say that He was there, in ways we can hardly fathom, and now weeps with us. Nonbelievers must puzzle out an answer for themselves.
And all parents must try their best, in this imperfect world, to make decisions that balance prudence with the need for their children to grow up unfettered by paralyzing fear, and to live with the consequences.