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Aisling's kidnapping suddenly makes the world feel less safe

The kidnapping of little Aisling Symes in New Zealand has caught the attention and the sympathies of Irish people because Alan, her father, is from Waterford.

But though it happened on the other side of the world, reports of such events can leave parents everywhere feeling a heightened sense of threat regarding their children's safety.

Who among us can understand the full depth of the pain, horror and devastation felt by the parents of Aisling?

We guess at it, we try to understand it, but most of all we fear it, for our own children or for children we love. Suddenly, the world feels less safe.

Sixteen years ago in Liverpool, toddler James Bulger was murdered by two boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who led the child out of a shopping centre and killed him.


Those of us who saw the grey, grainy CCTV footage as it was replayed thousands of times on TV and who lived through the trial never had same sense of security about our children again.

This was so, even though we knew such events were rare. Certainly, I cannot recall any event in the meantime that was similar to the awful James Bulger murder. That did not stop me, or hundreds of thousands of other parents, from keeping an extra watchful eye on my children when they were small and we were in shopping centres.

Defence is a huge part of our psychological make-up. The alertness of parents to the safety of their children in the home and outside is an example of this. We are continually protecting ourselves and our children against dangers, imaginary and real.

This is why events such as the kidnapping of Aisling (2), the murder of James Bulger or the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann on a family holiday have such a strong effect on those who have never met them.

Psychologists say that when bad things happen to others, we react as though they are happening to ourselves. Many readers, I am sure, can recall feeling angry on hearing about a friend, colleague or even a complete stranger being treated unfairly.

Similarly, there is a sense in which we react to terrible events as though it had happened or was about to happen to someone we love.

Crimes of this nature are rare. That is why they make the headlines. But because they make an impact, they make an exceptional impression on us.

I am sure Aisling's parents were as careful of her safety as any other parents are -- yet this terrible thing has happened to their child and to them.

Although crimes like this are rare, we all have to act prudently for the sake of our children. At the same time, we know we have to let our children take risks (this, obviously, does not apply to a two-year-old).


When it all goes nightmarishly wrong, we are reminded that we live in a world in which the worst that can happen sometimes happens. And then, because we are human beings, our view of the world in which we live is darkened, again.

Padraig O'Morain is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy