On Crime, Sects and Bias in Austria

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about Austria’s second* reported case in less than two years of a man holding (a) prisoner(s) in his basement for years on end (see here and hier if not).

Last night the Austrian minister of the interior, the mayor of Amstetten, the district commissioner, police representatives and other experts gathered in the ORF show “Im Zentrum” to discuss (well, actually, the minister had been invited to discuss the police shootings of three unarmed Romanians, but developing events necessitated a change of subject) the crime and answer questions like “How could something like this** go undetected for 24 years?”

The response was predictable with the authorities admitting in the face of such an elaborate scheme they were essentially helpless–“Who could imagine that the biological mother was locked in the basement?” “Such a crime is simply unimaginable.” “The culprit created the perfect ruse; his hiding place was perfectly disguised.”

Admittedly the father did coerce handwritten letters from his daughter to cover the odd events surrounding her own disappearance (as well as the appearance of three of her children on his doorstep in the ensuing years)–another tactic the police had never considered before–but was it really the perfect crime?

In a country that requires its citizens and visitors to report address changes to the police within three days of moving, keeps track of who pays TV tax (and visits those who don’t) and generally plays an active role in maintaining law and order, it is hard to believe that a bureaucratic failure of imagination is solely at fault. In fact, I suspect that Austrian susceptibility to their pet biases vis-a-vis non-mainstream religion kept the police and other authorities from even stretching their imaginations (or even conducting a more than perfunctory investigation) in the first place. As the AFP reports:

A letter was sent to her parents asking that they stop searching for her and local authorities concluded she had been seized by a religious sect.

Austrians tend to be very suspicious of religious cults but at the same time apparently quite gullible as long as their suspicions are confirmed. When the family told their neighbors and authorities that the three adopted children had no mother because she had fallen in with a sect, the response seemed to be: “Well, makes sense to me. I guess we can put this one in the cold case.”

I suppose that as long as citizens place some political value on privacy, there will be limits on the state’s ability to take any and all actions that might have been necessary to solve this case earlier. Still, I can’t help but be a little dismayed that the purported letter calling off the search wasn’t met with more scepticism and an increased resolve to get to the bottom of the missing person case. Being spirited off by a sect is a possibility that should be investigated, but not accepted as a plausible explanation for two and a half decades of absence. Clearly the danger is often closer to home.

*The first being Natascha Kampusch in August 2006.

**In a nutshell, father locks up then-18-year-old daughter in basement in 1984, reports her missing, impregnates her around six times, keeps three of the resulting children in the basement and adopts the other three, claiming they had been left on the doorstep by the missing daughter. When the oldest child in the basement comes down with serious illness, a trip to the hospital uncovers the mess.