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Vienna | 2.5.2008 | 18:24 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

"What do they think of us?"
  "My God, what do they think of us?" My friend closed the paper in disbelief.

It's absurd for a community to be stigmatised by the alleged acts of one person, but sadly that doesn't stop it happening.

It's probably also rather absurd to worry about suffering from the abstract woes of stigmas and reputations, when you think of the unbelievable but very real ordeal the victims of the incest case have reportedly been through. But, in light of the image campaign Chancellor Gusenbauer has announced, I'm going to do exactly that.
"Der Fall Amstetten"
  A week ago very few people outside Austria knew of the existence of the town of Amstetten, which has always meant to me giant plastic pears on roundabouts and hospitable people. Now, after a week in the global headlines, for millions of people around the world the very name Amstetten has become a by-word for horror.

And for a small community, that's a huge trauma.

Printed and Reprinted
  No-one should take it at all seriously when editorials insinuate that a community of 23,000 can be held responsible for failing to notice the alleged dark world of an extremely secretive man.

But of course it hurts to read such nonsense.

As it obviously hurts Austrians to read the hopelessly wild theories printed and re-printed about the legacy of Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and particularly the legacy Adolf Hitler. Any old excuse, right?
A Vigil
  Faced with sudden infamy for reasons out of your control, what do you do?

Some of my friends from Amstetten were at Monday's candlelit vigil in the town centre, which, in a BBC article, commentator Annaliese Rohrer saw as partly as "an act of contrition by the people of Amstetten."

There are questions still to be cleared up, particularly about the conduct of Austrian police in cases involving missing persons, but I very much doubt whether anyone holding a candle in Amstetten had anything personally to apologise for at all.

The people I have spoken to say the candles were more an expression of sympathy with the apparently horrific ordeal of the victims and a solemn vow of future support for them.
  bild: APA
  But I still think that Rohrer was right. When something so unfathomable happens in your community, I think there is to some extent a strange sense of guilt that does comes along with the shock - even if you know 100% you couldn't have influenced things yourself.

You can't help asking yourself "How could this happen among us?"
The Bulger Case
  I might be wrong. But we asked that question in Britain the year that toddler Jamie Bulger was murdered by a pair of primary school children. They asked it with more feeling in the city where the tragedy took place - Liverpool, which didn't need the typically obscene tabloids' comments condemning the community off-hand.

All discussion of media violence aside, we now consider the Bulger case a freak event.
The Moors Murders
  They ask that question still in the rugged moorland of northern English Pennines where I grew up - a panoramic landscape of rugged heath land that should speak of romance and freedom but, in the subconscious of countless Brits, has become of a symbol of the dark corners of the human soul - the Moors Murders.

It was on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester that the bodies of 5 children were dumped in the mid 1960's. They had been lured and abducted by the couple Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, who then sexually abused them, tortured them, and killed them - though not before recording their screams on cassette tape.

The hideous murders became the theme of a typically melancholic Smith's song called "Suffer Little Children" with the refrain "Manchester, so much to answer for".
Answering for a Crime
  Do the moors, or Manchester or Amstetten have anything to answer for?

Unspeakable crimes can and do happen anywhere: leaving behind a shocked population to worry, sometimes for years afterwards, if they could and should have done anything to prevent the horror.

Let's not pre-empt a necessary and serious investigation into whether the Lower Austrian authorities could have reacted to signals of abuse earlier, but for the vast, vast majority of the population, the answer is a resounding 'no'.

But they are stigmatised nonetheless - which seems unfair.

Not Austria
  With this is mind, you can understand the sentiment when Chancellor Gusenbauer insists that the entire country can't be taken hostage by a single criminal case. "It is not Austria that is the perpetrator," he said during yesterday's May Day celebrations, vowing to launch a campaign to cleanse Austria's reputation.

But would an government-led image campaign help either Amstetten or Austria? Today on Reality Check we spoke to a public relations consultant Thomas Hofer who thought it probably wouldn't be a wise move:

"I wouldn't suggest a huge campaign because that would just enforce the message that something is wrong."
"Particularly Sensitive"
  In case you are really worried about it, I'm convinced that Austria's reputation will be able to look after itself.

There are a thousand potent associations that the outside world already has with Austria, some positive, some negative, and once the satellite TV vans have left the Ybbsstrasse, this case will be just one of those thousand.

But, although he doubts its wisdom, Thomas Hofer understands the Chancellor's reaction. As Robert Rotifer pointed out well yesterday, Austria is often so gleefully misrepresented in the foreign press, and this time extremely dubious attempts to link the incest scandal to Nazi treatment of the Jewish population have passed unchallenged.

If you think about that, then it's easy see why a "Bruised Austria", as yesterday's British Independent newspaper described this country, feels "particularly sensitive to outside criticism."
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