Bryan Appleyard is, I fear, too hard on the McCanns here:
Madeleine McCann's father has been to America to meet the Attorney General to discuss child abduction. This makes no practical sense and is best seen as a symptom of a kind of madness brought on by grief. Ever since the abduction, the McCanns have…exhibited a manic desire to be seen 'doing something', even though much of what is done is of no relevance to the attempt to find their daughter.
What he misses is that the desire to “do something” is not confined to the grief-stricken McCanns. It's ubiquitous. Mankind cannot bear too much inaction. Just look at any government minister or company boss rushing from meeting to meeting and announcing initiative after initiative. It seems many people are hardwired to do things. I suspect there are (at least) three motives for this:
1. Symbolic rationality. People do things not because they’ll cause good outcomes, but simply to symbolize (to themselves as well as to others) that they care, that they are trying. I’d interpret almost all government policy in this way.
2. Displacement. The McCanns cannot bear to wait for Maddy to turn up, so they do something to fill the time. This is just an extreme version of a common impulse. It’s a cliché that writers have clean homes, because they cannot bear looking at a blank screen, and so feel the need to tidy their house rather than think what to write. Similarly, patients cannot wait to be cured by the passage of time, ministers cannot wait for this week’s “crisis” to blow over, and bosses cannot wait for the profits to roll in. So they have to take pills, announce policies and go to meetings.
3. Deep down, people suspect the truth - that thinking doesn’t do us any good. So we might as well do something - anything - to stop us being alone with our thoughts.
Hitchcock’s advice (apocryphal, but who cares?) to Tippi Hedren - “don’t just do something: stand there” - is therefore just a counsel of perfection.