When nationally known psychologist and talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw (the "Dr. Phil" show) appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on Nov. 2, he made some startling statements that turned more heads than usual. Referring to missing American teen Natalee Holloway, Dr. Phil said, "Without giving up too much information, we believe Natalee Holloway is alive." Dr. Phil then discussed one of the world's dirtiest secrets, the sex slave market that sees as many as 1-to-4 million women and children a year traded, sold, tricked, or kidnapped into physical bondage and sexual slavery. The fact that women are used as international chattel is a fact that cannot be disputed. The idea that Natalee Holloway is among the millions of women caught up in this living nightmare has yet to be proved.
Last week I was a guest on a pre-taped "Dr. Phil" show. The show that aired on Thursday, Nov. 17. Other guests included Natalee's mother, Beth Holloway Twitty, Iva and Ron Bradley, the parents of missing American Amy Bradley, and investigators and witnesses who appear to know something about these missing person cases. Before we went on camera, Beth and I sat together. She was cold and shaking, and she'd obviously lost some weight since I first met her in Aruba this summer. As I put my arm around her I said, "Beth, you know that statistically Natalee is probably dead." (We had discussed this in Aruba.) "I know," she said, "but I can't give up hope." I told her as long as we all remembered Natalee, she'd never be lost.
There's a fine line here - a line between real hope and false hope. The reality is that Natalee may have met her demise at the hands of one or more of the three current principal suspects in her disappearance from Aruba, Joran van der Sloot and the two Kalpoe brothers. I emphasize "may have," because I really don't know. I wasn't there and neither were the many who curtly suggest that Beth should just write her daughter off and move on with her life. "She's (Beth) had too much TV time already," some say, while others, probably parents themselves, say "Please tell Beth we're concerned, tell her we're praying for her."
I have seen many a kidnap victim recovered days, weeks, and even years after most presumed the victim to be dead. Statistics be damned, if Natalee were my daughter I'd pursue any and every investigative avenue possible until I was able to determine her ultimate fate to my own satisfaction, in reality until I personally closed the coffin lid. That's our job as parents, to never give up on our kids, and to keep that emotional porch light burning just in case late one night they come back home.
Dr. Phil does not suggest that he has any real, investigative-type proof that Natalee is alive, but he, like Beth, has not given her up for lost, not yet. During the taping of the show Beth talked about a strange telephone call she recently received, one she thought could have been Natalee trying to call home. Beth has spent years working in the area of speech therapy, listening to others with a keen, trained ear. Were the utterances she heard that night simply a wrong number filtered through the brain of a desperate parent, or the frantic attempt of a missing child to reach her parents? Nobody knows for sure. We do know that the parents of missing Salt Lake City teenager Elizabeth Smart never gave up, never wrote her off as dead. And Elizabeth Smart was eventually found and returned to her family. This is the hoped for conclusion of every parent whose child has been kidnapped. Dr. Phil has sent teams to various international locations in an attempt to verify potential sightings of Natalee Holloway and Amy Bradley. Amy Bradley disappeared off a cruise ship near Curacao, Antilles, in 1998 .
Here's the challenge in these situations. No matter what the movies may make you believe, neither the FBI nor the CIA routinely sends teams into foreign countries to rescue missing Americans. The reality is that most such sightings are passed on to the local authorities in the affected country and they in turn are asked to report their findings back to American authorities. Does that leave us to "Dog, the Bounty Hunter" to conduct such investigations, especially if we believe that local authorities may be somewhat reticent to conduct a thorough investigation? Some readers will remember that feisty Texas millionaire Ross Perot had two of his employees taken hostage in Iran in 1979. When the U.S. Government couldn't or wouldn't go after them, Perot mounted a personally financed rescue mission that succeeded in finding and snatching both hostages from under the nose of the Iranians. Should we encourage well-intended and privately financed vigilantism if the government is unable and unwilling to carry on the search? (U.S. Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Delta Force, and other military teams are fully capable of such international missions.) While any bureaucrat can answer this question in a politically correct manner, what if it were your son or daughter, your wife or husband, or the child or your neighbor - who would look for that loved one in the many dark places and back alleys in this world?
In addition to the three or more alleged sightings of Amy Bradley since her disappearance some seven years ago, someone now has come forward with a picture of a woman working in a Caribbean brothel who bears an amazing resemblance to Amy. Amy's parents have looked at the photo, shown on "Dr. Phil," and other photos of this same woman and believe she bears a strong resemblance to Amy. Although posing in a sensual manner, this young woman does not look happy. This fact alone does not make her a victim of kidnapping and forced sex slavery. In fact she may not be Amy, just another woman who has chosen to work in the world's oldest profession, prostitution. But as I said to Dr. Phil, even if the woman in the photograph is not Amy, and even if Natalee may be dead as opposed to chained to a bed in the back room of some dank Caribbean crack house, there are women, girls, and children from around the world that are forced into a living hell, something beyond the imagination-or nightmares-of most Americans. They are someone's daughter or sister or son or friend, and they too need to be rescued. Who's going to find them and bring them home? I told Beth that her life must be something like the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, where Murray's character must live and relive the same day, over and over again. "That's it," Beth told me. "Every day I get up and hope this was all a bad dream, and then it starts all over again."
Did Dr. Phil stretch his information a little far when he suggested Natalee Holloway may still be alive? Possibly so, but if you, like Dr. Phil or me, got the chance to sit and talk to Natalee's mom and dad, or Amy's mother and father, or the parents of dozens of other missing children, you too would see something special. You would see the hope, the small light of hope in their otherwise tired, worn and frightened eyes that someday their child will walk through the kitchen door, and back into their life, safe at last. Who among you can turn out that light and slam the door on their slim grasp on hope? In most cases, that's all they have, hope and a few pictures of their missing child frozen in history at the time he or she disappeared. Their child is trapped in a time warp and the parents can't reach them, touch them, or talk to them. They can't even bury them. As a parent, can it really get much worse than this?
Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed LiveSecure.org, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."