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LONDON — One week British citizens were worrying over whether we were going to war against Iraq and I was phoning all the antiwar organizations to find out what preparations they were making; the next, Britain was plunged into a collective horror of abducted children, citizenship had been washed away and journalism was sucked into a frantic scramble, led by the tabloids, to play the leading role in hunting for two missing girls.

Fear, disgust, prurience, sympathy, avidity, all these emotions and many more washed through the population as we followed hour by hour the search for the two 10-year-old girls, the arrest of two suspects, the discovery of the bodies, the identification of the decomposed bodies as those of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman — the small girls who suddenly disappeared from the streets of Soham, a small town in Cambridgeshire one Sunday night in August.

The peak of this crisis has passed. A local man, the caretaker at the girls’ school has been charged with murder, and is now held in a high security hospital under the mental health act. His girlfriend has been charged with perverting the course of justice — that is, not of being involved in the abduction and murder of the girl, but of knowing enough to mislead the police. She has been arraigned before magistrates — and driven away from a crowd of screaming women, men and tiny children, in a police convoy.

The preliminary inquest has been held and adjourned, the girls bodies so decomposed by their days in the open air that no cause of death has yet been decided. The local church has held mass services for people who never normally stick their noses through a church door, and, at the start of the winter soccer season, stadiums throughout the country have held a minute’s silence, the heads of hundreds of thousands of people silently bowed in honor of the girls. The churchyard in Soham is, like Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana five years ago, a growing, tottering mountain of flowers, the sun glinting off their cellophane wrappers like a shimmering sea, the sweet, rotten smell of flowers gently decaying, eddying round the tombstones. The four parents asked the public to please stay away from the funerals — one cremation, one burial.

Now we have been released from the grip of those feverish two weeks and there is time to ask, what happened? Was the communal tide of feeling about the girls a form of madness, mass hysteria, an aberration from sober civic being, or was it a proper and necessary response to an event that touched the innermost center of our human feelings?

We’re used to fear as the instigator of mass hysteria and panic: the anthrax terror in the United States after Sept. 11; an infinite variety of health scares from Legionnaires’ disease to, as one American academic argued, Gulf War syndrome; even the belief that secret agents poisoning the water supply helped the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. These are familiar components of every sophisticated democracy.

But until recently, grief and loss were not thought to provoke collective, unbounded emotion. Rather grief and horror, were thought of as emotions that made the individual turn inward, to hide themselves from public view in an essentially private pain.

That is clearly not true. Of course, the grief felt at the murders of the two girls, like the grief at the accidental death of Diana, has components of anger and fear to fuel the feeling. Nonetheless, it points to the human need for collective mass feeling, to be manifest unself-consciously in common with thousands of other people.

This phenomenon provokes a torrent of scorn from the old liberal middle class. For them, such mass emotions are spurious, fickle and brutish. For them, the whole effort of an advanced democracy should be to squeeze out this dangerous remnant of precivilized man. It is a phenomenon that old liberals invariably associate with women and the uneducated.

It is hardly surprising that the most prized quality of an upper-class Englishman used to be the stiff upper lip, the adamant refusal to feel, let alone express, any untoward emotion to anyone about anything. For such Englishmen, the mob is only a stone’s throw away from lopping off the head of the monarch.

Out of this horror grew the distinctive belief in Britain and France, in particular, that the key element of a sophisticated democracy was “individualism.” This was the steady beating heart of a sober society that would resist the heady seductions of fascism, as seen in Germany or Italy; emperor worship, as in Japan; lynch mobs in the American South; and any number of barbaric and hysterical practices in Asia.

As a belief to defend the propertied classes against the mass, it makes sense. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy and education. For, as we have learned in the sophisticated West, the need for collective emotion is a basic human need. The need to lose one’s individuality is inescapable.

Sadly for political people, that need is more demonstrated in the embrace of alcohol and drugs than by marches and carnivals in the streets. The National Union of Students has launched a surprising, perhaps ludicrous campaign: to persuade students not to spend every weekend losing themselves in drink. Perhaps it’s the discovery by today’s young Britons that the restraint of their forefathers, in the interests of social order and empire, has no value to them that makes them more inclined than any other European nation to get drunk wherever and whenever possible.

But the mass grief over symbolic deaths, like those of Holly and Jessica, also speaks to the sadness over the death of something lovely that lurks in everyone. In a new opera broadcast about Diana’s death (“When She Died: Death of a Princess”), one of the characters is shown in acute mourning over the apparent loss of her own child, whom she can only describe as “perfect” — who turns out to be, in fact, her own childhood self.

If political democracies in the 21st century recognized that we are all complex emotional beings at all times, and not citizens in some hours, feeling individuals in the privacy of our own families, and a mass only at the football stadium, perhaps some important step forward will have been taken.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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