No one ever accused me of stealing my own baby, but I know what it feels like to be the olive-skinned, dark-eyed mother of a fair-haired, blue-eyed biological child.
It's a little weird.
But it's not exactly rare.
When I heard about the two Roma families in Ireland whose young kids were snatched up this week by police on suspicion they'd been stolen because they were lighter-complected than the rest of their family, I had a creepy feeling.
Sure enough, the children, a now-traumatized 7-year-old girl from a Dublin suburb and 2-year-old boy from a town in the Irish Midlands, turned out to be genetic matches with their parents. But not before being removed from their homes by overzealous police and sparking a hysteria about swarthy baby-stealers.
Ireland is in a tizzy. It's probably too strong to say the incidents have resulted in national soul-searching, but they have raised some uncomfortable questions:
-- Was racism afoot? Of course. Roma, also perjoratively called Gypsies, are a widely dispersed and often despised ethnic group who are subject to vile stereotypes, including baby stealing. Hitler, by the way, rounded them up with as much zeal as he rounded up Jews.
The older sisters of the 7-year-old girl told the Guardian their home has been "the target of repeated attacks from local youths." The family had installed a surveillance camera outside, and special glass on their living room window "to protect them from missiles."
An early, overheated news report featured the headline "Now blonde girl found at a Roma home in Ireland: Blue-eyed child of seven is led away by police and social workers," and claimed the child was taken "following a major investigation."
-- Did Irish police act out of a sincere belief they were protecting children? Doubtless they did. While acknowledging the massive error, Irish Justice Minister Alan Shatter defended the police and said they acted within the law. In the case of the 7-year-old girl, her passport picture was outdated, and the police originally could not find her birth record, raising suspicions. As it turned out, her name on hospital records was slightly different from her name on her birth certificate, which was soon located.
-- Was social media involved? Of course! Turns out the tip about the little girl was first posted anonymously on the Facebook page of a Dublin TV station. A researcher at the station, according to Irish news reports, passed the message to an investigative reporter, who alerted police. Facebook strikes again.
-- Was there an antecedent for this hysteria? Yes. Last week, a Roma couple in Greece falsely claimed to be the biological parents of a tow-headed girl named Maria, who has been removed from the home and is the subject of frenzied speculation. The couple have been arrested on suspicion of abduction and welfare fraud. The child's origins are still a mystery.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the 7-year-old Irish girl's family attorney told reporters that her parents and sisters were "absolutely delighted" to have her home. But they don't believe there was any legitimate reason for her to have been removed in the first place.
"She is my sister, she was born in this country and she is an Irish citizen," her 21-year-old sister told the Daily Mail on Tuesday while the little girl was still in state custody. "There has been a big mistake here, a very big mistake. And we will sue."
Under the circumstances, who wouldn't?