The Disappearance Of Etan Patz and, With Him, Another Age

By now, the world has learned of the possible fate of six-year-old Etan Patz who vanished during a short and, for him, unprecedented walk alone from his home to a school bus stop in New York's SoHo district one morning in May, 1979.

Just last week and, dramatically, on the thirty-third anniversary of his disappearance, police received a tip that a man, since moved to New Jersey, had crossed Etan's path that day and, on a psychotic impulse, had strangled the life out of him. His body, discarded with the trash, would never be found.

It was Etan's sudden and disturbing disappearance, more than any other, which had shaken America to its bones, leaving it perennially alarmed and obsessively suspicious for decades to come.

His disappearance would be the catalyst for a fundamental reordering of America – and indeed, the world - along lines dictated by boundless paranoia and a near-total erosion of trust.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, himself a witness to the decades-long quest to uncover the boy's fate, has expressed tentative satisfaction with the credibility of the subsequent confession freely given by this most recent and, to date, most likely suspect.

Strikingly, Kelly now suggests the distinct possibility that Etan's murderer was motivated, not by sexual desire, but by sheer craziness. The self-confessed killer is said to be bipolar and schizophrenic, a pathological tangle more than adequate in explaining an otherwise unmotivated killing.

And this, decades after Etan Patz - his identity, his infectious smile, his beauty, and his heartbreaking absence – had been expropriated as fuel for a witch burning which continues to smolder to this day.

NAMBLA, a very young organization at the time, found itself thrust into the national spotlight several years after Etan's disappearance when a photograph from a calendar was seized by police and the F.B.I. from the home of one of its members.

Although authorities said its subject bore a striking resemblance to Etan, his own parents flatly denied that it could be their son. Bizarrely, the police helpfully suggested that NAMBLA must have airbrushed a "cleft" into Etan's chin to make the calendar boy, somehow, more appealing.

What they failed to mention was that the picture had been taken in 1968, the same year as the calendar's publication and some five years prior to Etan's birth.

No matter. The press ran with the story and the myth of NAMBLA as evil child trafficking cabal was born.

Inconveniently for the police and the F.B.I., NAMBLA held its own press conferences – one in New York and another, simultaneously, in Boston – where they revealed the truth of the photograph's provenance, complete with copies of the original calendar bearing the date “1968”.

Though law enforcement was forced to admit their "mistake" in a subsequent press conference, the damage to NAMBLA's reputation with the public was, nevertheless, beyond repair.

Public perception of the organization would never countenance the possibility of a benign intent. Perhaps that would have been the case even without these spurious allegations but, if first impressions are the most important, then NAMBLA's effective debut onto the world stage would be nothing short of catastrophic.

Although many, no doubt, were bitterly disappointed that the Etan Patz/NAMBLA connection had been so decisively dispatched, the formation in the public mind of a link between the organization and what would be perceived as a flood of child disappearances in the decade to come became, nonetheless, indelible.

The public was in no mood to be reasonable or fair-minded, led around by the nose, as they were, by a cynical and opportunistic press who routinely crafted their distortions and confabulations in concert with law enforcement as well as zealous, obsessive crusaders, a practice which continues today.

It was, perhaps then, that the organization learned an essential, hard lesson about the press: the less popular a people or their ideas, the less likely they will be accurately represented by the media.

Pedro Hernandez has not yet been convicted of Etan Patz' murder and it is still too soon to come to any definitive conclusions.

Given the likelihood that Etan's body will never be found and that Hernandez' word, alone, forms the basis for the charges now brought against him, it is entirely possible that the probable answer to the little boy's disappearance will never be entirely satisfactory.

Already, there are hints that some will always refuse to accept the possibility that a "non-pedophile" might be responsible for such a terrible act.

Many are, after all, entirely invested in a worldview which conflates the hideous actions of rare and deranged individuals with those who openly acknowledge a love for children or adolescents.

After all, much has been built upon that foundation of fear and loathing during these past thirty years.

And then there is the now irreconcilable fact that a man currently languishing in a Pennsylvania prison for having sex with boys, Jose Ramos, was found responsible in civil court for Etan's disappearance, having once dated the boy's babysitter, despite his denials and a paucity of evidence.

Vacating that judgment would, no doubt, be most distressing for those who had previously pointed to a convicted pedophile as the murderer of Etan Patz, a little boy who had become, unwittingly, a cornerstone in the strident and shrill anti-pedophile movement.

At the time of Etan's disappearance, we couldn't have imagined the dramatic extent of fundamental, social upheaval, already then in motion, just as today it is difficult to remember how different our world once was.

Ever more terrible, vicious, and unjust laws, enacted over the decades since Etan disappeared, have permanently incapacitated alarming numbers of our citizens.

Children, who once would have enjoyed significant freedom of movement and of association, must now derive all intellectual and emotional sustenance from those adults who pass criminal background checks and who have been carefully vetted by government.

Kids today are elaborately cocooned in their homes and their schools in an abundance of caution which is seen never to be entirely adequate.

They are presumed to be continuously in peril of kidnap - or worse - and to possess no innate instincts for self preservation, even as adolescents.

Their opportunities to play with other children are closely structured, scheduled and supervised by ever-fearful parents. Even their "hand-offs" to other qualified adults are exquisitely coordinated.

Unrelated adults who show any warmth or fondness for kids are viewed with immediate suspicion and many have adopted, instead, a more acceptable air of indifference towards children. As with all distortions imposed by social opprobrium, this will inevitably be to the detriment of the kids themselves.

This is a very different world from that which existed when Etan Patz triumphantly ventured alone, for the first time, down the street to buy a soda and to wait for his school bus.

Many of us still remember when we first saw Etan; a beautiful, delightful, happy boy looking past the camera to his photographer father, beaming poignantly from a "missing child" poster.

Our hearts ache no less today when we see, once again, that vanished boy from a vanished time; a boy who will always be, tragically and forever, six years old.