My friend Anne, who babysits her little grandson, was shocked when he began talking about killing people.
He doesn't play with older children, his television viewing is carefully monitored, and he certainly didn't hear it at home with his gentle, loving parents.
"Where" she asked me during our weekly phone visit, "did he get that'?
She called me back a few days later with the answer, after she watched his favorite "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" with him on video. This was the movie Anne and I sat through enthralled when we were young; but I guess we'd forgotten how violent some of the Disney films are.
Of course now children watch them not once at the movie theater, but over and over again in their living rooms.
What impressed me most when I saw "Snow White" was not the wicked Queen's plans to kill her, but the fact that the witch herself died on a cliff, struck by lightning, as we children cheered. At an early age, we were introduced to the concept of good vs. evil -- and the fact that evil always lost.
I still think this is wonderfully reassuring, and bought the video for my grandchildren before it went into the Disney archives.
In the books that were read to me and those I read later myself, and at the Saturday cowboy matinees, the good guys (Red Riding Hood, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Roy Rogers) always won. From children to the seniors who never missed "Walker, Texas Ranger," we love the heavy theme.
Raised Catholic, I was taught that the devil is an actual being who has to be battled all through our lives and throughout eternity. My son missed these lessons, but we went to "Star Wars" together, and read "Dune," "Lord of the Rings", and Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes."
Now our family is following J.K. Rowling's battles between Harry Potter and the evil
It's part of our heritage: This sense that some people are really horrible, and that it is good to be on the side of those who resist or attack them. There are those who disagree with this, and believe that if you just talk nice to the bad guys you can make them good; those who know history, however, shudder at that idea.
Of course, there are people who are simply wrong, weak, or foolish, and who can benefit from kindness and compassion. Evildoers are something else altogether.
Hitler was evil. Saddam Hussein is evil too. If the American professional military wants to take him on, my Catholic background tells me that God and St. Michael are on our side.
We don't need a war to come face to face with evil, though; big or small, it's all around us. Recently we've seen it in the same church that warned me of its existence throughout my childhood. You can read about it most days in the pages of newspapers and see it on the evening news.
The clearest historical example of evil run rampant here in Massachusetts was the 17th century "witch" persecution in Salem, which was dramatized again recently as a television special. The modern-day version of these trials took place during the Fells Acre Day Care prosecution in the mid-1980s.
Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz has just published a book,
Tyrannies," described as the story of "accusation, false witness and other terrors of our time." It chronicles the conviction of innocent day care providers for sexual abuse crimes that never happened, and features the tragic tale of the Amirault family of Malden. It became available at the same time Gerald Amirault was again denied release from prison.
The Advisory Board of Pardons that unanimously recommended commutation of Gerald's sentence to former governor Jane Swift -- who was wrong, weak and foolish when she ignored it -- has denied the petition this time on the grounds that Gerald is eligible for actual parole this fall and the commutation process would probably take longer. This is disappointing but practical; the problem is not the extra nine months but the first 16 years of Amirault's wrongful incarceration.
Perhaps by the end of this year, Saddam Hussein will be destroyed, the real child abusers in the clergy will be punished, and Gerry Amirault will be free. But the evil that was done by the first two, and the wrong that was done to the latter, will remind us forever that evil often triumphs for the short term, and makes a permanent blot on our childlike sense of justice.