Reports that a man driving a white van had abducted a 10-year-old Eldersburg girl at gunpoint sent spasms of fear through Carroll County last week. For many parents, who moved to the largely rural county to escape crime and the fear of it that often permeates Baltimore and its nearby suburbs, their worst nightmare seemed to be coming true.
Sightings of the van and rumors of previous abduction attempts swirled around neighborhoods in the southern parts of Carroll County. Just as the panic was reaching a peak, the victim recanted and said she made up the story. State police investigators have closed the case.
Some parents, nevertheless, inexplicably remain convinced a child molester is loose on Carroll County roads. Others believe the girl backed off her original story because she was pressured or because she didn't want to be mistreated by "the system." These people seem to have trouble believing that their neighborhoods aren't as threatened by strangers as they imagined.
This incident and its aftermath point to a number of troubling aspects of modern American society. With the television airwaves saturated with "docu-dramas" and "reality" television programs that dwell on crime, we seem to have convinced ourselves and our children that bizarre misdeeds are everyday occurrences and that we are all potential victims.
Given the amount of crime in contemporary society, there is a rational basis for fear. Depraved adults do prey on children, but it occurs much less often than we think. Most of the missing children on milk cartons were abducted by parents in ugly custody fights.
Children need to be warned, as were their own parents, not to talk with or get into cars driven by people they don't know. At the same time, they also need reassurances that they can ride their bikes and play in neighborhood parks without worrying they will be kidnapped.
We may never know why this child created this tale, but 10-year-olds don't always draw a distinct line between fantasy and reality. She may have spoken to a stranger and embellished the story without realizing the consequences. She may have seen something on television that triggered the tale.
Regardless of the origins of the child's story, adults in Carroll County and elsewhere need to keep a balanced perspective on the real dangers we face in our daily lives.