Next Wave International™

Social Comment

Austrian Captives - Symptom Of Disconnected Society?
Mal Fletcher

Posted: 28 April 2008

People across Europe read with alarm yesterday's news that a woman in Austria, had been held captive in a basement by her father for twenty-four years. In that time she was raped repeatedly so that she bore him seven children, one of whom died.

The woman was in her early twenties when she was locked in the four-roomed basement. Now in her forties, she apparently opened up to police only when she was assured she would never see her father again.

The man, now in his seventies, is now being held by police.

Perhaps the most tragic part of this story is that nobody in the area knew what was going on. Even within the house itself, three of the children lived on the upper floors, and had been told that their mother had run off years ago, leaving their grandfather to care for them.

These three went to school each day totally oblivious to the tragedy unfolding just below their feet.

One man, identified by Austrian TV as a neighbour of the man now held by police, looked in utter disbelief at the now infamous house of captivity. Wide eyed, he said: 'I can't believe this. It all went on just over there. How could this happen? How could nobody know about it?' This, of course, is the second story about a woman held captive to emerge from Austria in the past two years.

Some might see this as a blight on Austria - and it is - but it is also a blight on the rest of western society. We all share a detachment from our neighbour which makes this kind of thing, while unlikely, still very possible.

In an increasingly hi-tech age, we are sadly becoming increasingly low-touch. I asked a large group of under thirty-year-olds in London recently if they turned off their PCs or mobile phones, would they have any friends.

So much of our 'communication' is via electronic gadgets these days. One wonders whether we have communication without real connection.

The story is told of a man who stood day after day by the doors of a bank of elevators in the lobby of a New York skyscraper. Asked why he did this, he replied simply: 'I wait for people to brush past me - I just need to be touched.'

Yesterday, Baroness Susan Greenfield, the famous neuroscientist based at Oxford University, described her concern for young people who are playing PC games ad infinitum.

Her study of the brain has led her to believe that by playing too many games, young people are actually reshaping the structure of their brains, so that they disconnect their actions from consequences.

She wondered aloud whether the recent story of British teenagers who laughed and joked while kicking another teen to death was a reflection of this disconnect.

Perhaps, she said, they were just in it for the experience, the in-the-moment 'rush', and gave no thought to the girl's own story, or her place as a real human being.

What does this have to do with a captive woman in Austria? Nothing directly; but it illustrates from a different angle the growing alienation in western society. People of all ages keep to themselves. The young hide behind their games, their elders behind consumerism and other forms of escapism.

Events like Live8 a few years ago served as a powerful reminder of the fact that people today are socially aware; they do have a social conscience.

However, perhaps it is easier to love a 'neighbour' if he's in Africa than if he lives just up the street.

Perhaps we're only willing to really connect with people when we can easily disconnect again at any time, without too much disruption to our lives.

For my part, I have to admit that I know very little about the people who live in the next house to mine. They seem to have a great family life, and they're always very pleasant and friendly in conversation. But I don't really know any more than that - and that's a reflection of my priorities I suppose.

I know people on the other side of the world better than I know these folks who live on my doorstep.

In the end, we can blame our busy lifestyles for a lack of connection. But busyness is not the same as significance. Achieving the latter begins when we love our neighbour - and not just the neighbour on the other side of the world; and not just ''love' in an ethereal sense, but tangibly, with actions.

For now, we can pray for the Austrian woman and her children. The road to recovery will be a very long one indeed, and perhaps outside of a miracle from above they may never be completely free of the terror they've endured.

However, we can also take this as a parable of modern life and resolve within ourselves to do more to connect with those who live and work close by.

Copyright Mal Fletcher 2008

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