Thursday, May 12, 2011

Discovering Evil for the First Time

Time magazine recently devoted an entire issue to "The End of Osama bin Laden," his face on the cover receiving the same treatment--a red X painted across it--as Hitler's and Saddam's once did. In her weekly essay, columnist Nancy Gibbs remembers, ten years later, a conversation she overheard between her two daughters a few days after 9/11. She was driving them home from school; and they were aged 4 and 7 at the time. A program on the car radio was suddenly interrupted by a voice announcing the latest body count.

"They should have been more careful," the 4-year-old declared to her sister. "They should have watched where they were going, the men flying the planes--they shouldn't have knocked those buildings down." "My almost-7-year-old came back," Gibbs writes, "all wise and knowing. 'Galen,' she said anciently, 'that wasn't an accident. They meant to knock the buildings down.' "
"Silence. Stubborn. 'No, they didn't.'"
"'Yes. They did. They WANTED to kill those people. They were bad men.' "

Remembering that conversation prompts Gibbs to wonder when it was, somewhere along the way, that her older daughter had discovered the presence of evil in the world. It set me wondering as well: is there a moment in childhood when the hymen of innocence gets unexpectedly pierced in some raw encounter with evil? I think of this now, because I can so clearly recall the precise moment when it happened to me--although, admittedly, I couldn't have framed it in those terms at the time. Years later, I could.

It was Easter Sunday and I was maybe 10 years old. My mother had given me an (el cheapo) Easter basket with fake green grass, some fuzzy, yellow, baby chicks, and a multi-colored assortment of jelly bean eggs. I was thrilled with it. In those days, we lived in a high-rise apartment building in Manhattan, and I would play on the sidewalk in front of the building--things like handball, roller skating, jump rope. That morning I took the elevator downstairs and went outside, proudly carrying my Easter basket.

A few minutes later, the teen bully I'd seen around a few times before suddenly appeared and, with a malicious sneer, he grabbed the basket out of my hand. Before I could fathom what was happening, he smashed it into the gutter and ran off. I stared at the strewn contents and was devastated. Shrieking with terror, I ran upstairs to find my mother, By then, I was crying hysterically and could not be consoled. Once my mother finally ascertained the cause of my traumatized emotion, she dismissed the whole affair. After all, I had not been personally assaulted or suffered any physical injury. The basket wasn't really worth anything, and my mother was not exactly an intuitive scholar in matters of human evil and psychic trauma.

For years I never understood myself what upset me so much--until I finally did. That was my first encounter with gratuitous evil--with someone else's power to destroy and take pleasure in violence and aggression. It might have made more sense to me had the young man stolen my basket. But he didn't want the basket. What he took instead was my innocence, my ability to feel safe--the same thing Osama bin Laden took from the American people when he orchestrated the destruction of the Twin Towers.

I don't remember where or when I first heard the following story about a father, his small son, and the staircase, but I did know immediately that something about it was dangerous to the heart. I don't suppose it is actually a true story, but it was, and still remains, an object lesson in the breaking of trust, potent enough to leave its imprint on the recipient for life. A father decides to engage his little boy in a game, instructing him to go to the top of the stairs and jump, reassuring the child that it is safe because he will catch him at the bottom before he falls. The child jumps and the father catches him. Excitedly, they repeat the same ritual several times--the child enjoying this risky but thrilling interaction with his father. Suddenly, however, instead of catching his son, the father deliberately lets him fall. It is an initiation of sorts into the ways of the world, an inoculation against betrayal. So what do those marks on the floor tell you? "Never trust anybody," the father tells the son, and in that moment, the nectar of trust is surrendered to the bee's tongue.

When trust is shattered, it scars one's confidence in life and the possibility of trusting it. What matters is the sharpness and severity of the particular incident. Lions leaping out of walls will fill you with terror at any age--whether it is your Easter basket that is destroyed, or your tallest, most prized building. Either way, you will suffer because, at the time, you have no way of defending yourself.

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