Parents' knee-jerk reaction

Commentary: Instead of asking `how could they?' maybe we should ask ourselves why we think we'd do anything differently.

March 23, 2000|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

The melodramatic manhunt for a deranged boyfriend who murdered anyone shielding his girlfriend climaxed in a four-day siege and ended when he was shot and killed by police.

But all anybody seems to be talking about is that Joseph Palczynski's two adult hostages left a child behind when they fled their sleeping captor.

The coroner had not yet removed Palczynski's body from the Dundalk apartment where he held police at bay for 96 hours before early-morning television news anchors and drive-time DJs were wondering out loud how Andy McCord could have slipped out a window and left his 12-year-old son, Bradley, asleep inside, alone with a maniac napping next to a small arsenal.

They were polite about it. They talked about how anxious they were to get all the facts. But they still wanted to know how a father -- how any adult -- could save his own skin and leave a child -- any child -- at the mercy of a monster who would certainly wake, find them gone and take his revenge.

"There were a lot of people early on who were saying we should withhold judgment," Chip Franklin, WBAL radio talk show host, said after his show yesterday morning. "But they wanted to understand how anyone could leave their child behind."

Franklin kept asking his listeners whether Andy McCord had abandoned his child -- or set in motion the events that would save him. After all, police said the escape of McCord and Lynn Whitehead required them to act.

"[We] go in or that boy is dead," Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence Sheridan said Tuesday night.

Even so, people were so chilled by the thought that McCord and Whitehead had left Bradley behind that they literally demanded an explanation.

"You will have to ask Ms. Whitehead and Mr. McCord," Sheridan said at a press conference yesterday afternoon, and his tone was brusque.

A more telling question might be: What caused us to judge these two so quickly and so harshly?

Perhaps it is because when we imagine ourselves in this situation, we imagine ourselves acting heroically. We see ourselves lowering the child to safety. We see ourselves shielding him with our own bodies. And these images are good images. They come from a good place inside us, the place that loves and protects children.

Doesn't fit image

But when a home video shows Andy McCord tumbling awkwardly out a window and tiptoeing across cold, wet grass to safety, it shocks us. It doesn't fit the image we have in our heads.

We are upset, and it is not difficult to understand why. Those visions we have of ourselves as unselfish parents got trampled during a very dramatic moment, and our first reaction is incredulity.

Of all the characters in this love-and-murder drama, Bradley McCord is the most sympathetic. He is just a kid, he had done nothing to bring this on himself. Blameless, defenseless, he was therefore most at risk for a tragic and unjust death. So when it appears that his interests are put behind those of adults, we are incensed.

And that is a good thing. It means our hearts are still in the right place, despite years of battering by televised tragedy.

But our outrage on behalf of young Bradley, I think, betrays our own insecurity as parents. If we were so certain of our own unselfishness, would we be so quick to doubt the selflessness of other parents?

McCord's fatherhood should have triggered in us an instinctive understanding: Certainly he must have done the best that he could do, because we would have.

Instead we judge him -- if only for an instant. I admit that my first thought was: "How could they leave that boy behind?" We judge, perhaps, because that judgment keeps us from examining ourselves, from thinking too much about how we might come up short in such a calamity. It is easier for us to dismiss Andy McCord as a bad parent, a bad person.

"Look at the outcome," advised hostage negotiator Dr. James McGee, putting aside reporters' questions about the motives of the adults. "They took an action that created an opportunity to save all the hostages."

Forced to beg

For four days, Joseph Palczynski held Lynn Whitehead and Andy McCord hostage. According to McGee, he repeatedly forced them to beg for their lives.

They survived, but now find themselves in the docket answering the accusations of a faceless public. By the time their first day of regained freedom ended yesterday, they must have felt the same incredulity we felt that morning when we heard the news of their escape: How could they?

We would all like to believe that we would rush into a burning building to save our child. We want to believe that the instinct for self-preservation could never supplant the love we feel for that child.

We should all pray we are never tested as Andy McCord and Lynn Whitehead have been.

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