IN THE AFTERMATH of the rescue of Shawn Hornbeck, it's become clear that this society is beset by a shameful syndrome.
Let's call it the Gene Pitney Syndrome, for the vocalist who sang the 1961 hit song, "Town Without Pity."
In this case: Country Without Pity.
As soon as it became evident that Shawn had ample opportunity to escape his captor over the past four years but didn't, the national jubilation over his survival turned to skepticism.
In a nanosecond, we went from celebrating a miracle to casting suspicion on the victim.
"Why didn't he escape?" became the overriding theme of the story, which is reinforced with every new detail:
Shawn was alone much of the day while Michael Devlin worked two jobs. He had contact with police when he and a friend violated curfew. He had access to the Internet, to the phone, to the outside world.
Why didn't he say something? Why didn't he run?
And suddenly this young boy, whose life was stolen from him, is no longer perceived as the victim of a psychopathic pedophile but a potential accomplice in his own exile.
Sure, everyone is invoking the Stockholm Syndrome to explain that terrorized victims come to identify with their captors on whom they depend for survival.
Shawn has told his family that Devlin threatened to kill him if he ran away, according to reports.
But that hasn't silenced the insinuation that Shawn may have been a runaway rather than a prisoner and didn't want to return to his family.
I've even read accounts, God help us, suggesting he stayed in part because he had a "pretty carefree life": He didn't have to go to school, and he was allowed to get body piercings.
What kid wouldn't give up family, stability, identity, home, childhood and safety for that?
What's a little enslavement, terror, mental cruelty and God knows what else compared to the scourge of homework?
This shameless skepticism reveals us as not only downright stupid - about the mind-set of a captive and the mind of a child - but apparently no longer capable of believing in innocence and actual victimization.
Even the boy who so accurately described the pickup truck that sped from the scene after Ben Ownby was abducted last week was greeted with skepticism. How could he have noticed so much detail in a few seconds?
Michael Hults' description of the truck led police to Devlin and the discovery of both Shawn and Ben Ownby.
But Michael's description was so vivid that he had to take a polygraph to dispel suspicion that he was making up a cover story, according to newspaper reports.
It's a disgrace.
Sure, we've been duped by notorious coverups and hoaxes that have made us wary of self-proclaimed victims.
From Charles Stuart, the Boston man who murdered his pregnant wife and inflamed racial tension by blaming a nonexistent black suspect, to Susan Smith, who played the grieving mother after drowning her children - we've been had, time and again.
Not to mention the current case involving three Duke lacrosse players accused of rape by an exotic dancer whose story seems to be unraveling.
But where's our empathy for a child who was snatched off the streets and psychologically enslaved? How can we question his actions when we know nothing of what he endured?
If ever there was an innocent victim, it's an abducted child.
We've truly become a merciless society if we can't suspend our skepticism when it comes to the likes of Shawn Hornbeck.
What an outrage if he survived the Stockholm Syndrome only to become a victim of the Gene Pitney Syndrome, in a country without pity. *
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