Sunday, February 11, 2007

NCMEC ditches Billo

Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor on the Fox Noise Channel [as Keith Olbermann calls it], has repeatedly and insistently questioned what prevented Shawn Hornbeck — the Missouri boy who was kidnapped, abused, and raped over a 4-year period — from escaping from his captor. I have said in this blog that the detailed answer is undoubtedly complicated, but the short answer from Shawn himself is that he was terrified. Bill O'Reilly, though, maintains that Shawn must have, at least on some level, enjoyed his captivity. Billo's outrageous statements led the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to cancel a scheduled appearance by Billo at a NCMEC fundraiser. I say kudos to NCMEC.

We know that Shawn Hornbeck was given considerable freedom of movement and at least some access to the Internet. Given that his alleged captor had a full-time job, there were countless occasions in the course of four years that Shawn was left unsupervised. It would only have taken one phone call to 911 or to his parents' home. Why on earth didn't he take advantage of even just one of those many opportunities to escape? What held him back?

Bill O'Reilly and others, including one commenter on my previous article, discount or even dismiss the notion that Shawn was paralyzed by fear, preferring the easy answer that "he must've liked it." Let me ask you something: which is more plausible?

  1. Shawn was terrified for 4½ years, without interruption

  2. Shawn was having a great time for 4½ years, without interruption
Simply put, a kid will get bored, annoyed, pissed off at his parent (or pseudo-parent), and any number of other emotions that don't fit the framework of "having a great time." Heck, kids in loving families often run away at that age, even if it's only for a few hours. The idea that Shawn was having a terrific time playing hooky for 1,558 days, without anything more than a momentary pang of nostalgia for his family, just doesn't pass the most basic plausibility test for anyone who has ever been or ever known a teenager. On the other hand, it is (sadly) entirely plausible that a boy of that age could be terrified practically every one of those 2.2 million minutes.

Let's go back to the core question: why didn't Shawn run away when it seems such an obvious thing to do? In college, I participated in a peer-to-peer counseling program. One of the first things in the training was the admonition to avoid giving facile advice. Ask yourself this: if the solution to the problem is really that obvious and that trivial, then why is the person looking for advice? There must be some complication that you haven't heard about yet. The same goes for leaping to the facile conclusion that Shawn didn't run away from Michael Devlin because he didn't want to escape. There has to be some other element in the equation. Shawn may not be Einstein, but he's not an imbecile, either. We know that Shawn knew that his parents were still searching for him, because we know he visited the web site they set up. We know that one of the neighbors asked him directly if he was Shawn Hornbeck. We know that Shawn was allowed outside with a bicycle. He apparently had means, motive, and opportunity to escape. However, we also know that Shawn was snatched by a child predator — something no one would ever wish for — and we know that his alleged captor has been criminally charged with sexually abusing Shawn. Given those facts, does it make more sense to say that there was something "not right" with Shawn, or that there was something "not right" with his abductor? Even the fact that Shawn apparently had a certain rapport with Devlin doesn't discount the claim that he was too terrified to make any attempt at escape, and I'm not necessarily talking about "Stockholm Syndrome."

Bill O'Reilly's comments about Shawn Devlin were so offensive, so inhumane, so insensitive, and so profoundly inappropriate, that the NCMEC had no choice but to disinvite him. Having Bill O'Reilly speak about missing and exploited children would have as bad as having Mark Foley, the former chair of the House Republican caucus on missing and exploited children.

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