This will be my 16-month-old daughter's first Halloween on foot. Last year, she was a baby bunny who toured the neighborhood in Daddy's arms. This year, she'll be a kitten -- clambering up porch steps, clutching her goody bag, and marveling at all the treats within her reach.
I'll be damned if I let our Halloween fun be ruined by evil cavemen in Afghanistan. Or by panic-ridden spoilsports here at home.
My local shopping mall canceled Halloween festivities this week for fear of terrorist-related mischief. Arkansas state officials, anxious about the possibility of poisoned Pixie sticks and post-9-11 pranks, directed parents last week not to take their kids trick-or-treating. Publicity-starved Jesse Jackson wants a nationwide holiday boycott. And at College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville, Md., administrators told parents that if a student's costume is too scary, they'll be forced to change into another costume selected from the school's collection of non-threatening outfits.
These nervous Nanny State nellies need to buck up. American parents have been using caution and common sense to ward off Halloween havoc from time immemorial. When I was a kid, the 1982 Tylenol tampering scare resulted in renewed parental vigilance. It should be no different this year. The pre-9-11 rules for Halloween safety still apply: Bring a flashlight. Stay close to home. Never take sweets from strangers. Don't eat anything unpackaged. And when in doubt, just throw it away.
My daughter has never tasted candy. Nor will she until she's much, much older. For now, the simple act of taking something from one container and transferring it to another is cause for exultant joy. Plus, she's a big-time snoop. Halloween will give her a chance to nose around inside our friendly neighbors' homes, show off two of her new favorite words ( "Hiiiiii!" and "Byyye!"), and socialize with the other babies on the block. Where's the danger in a little old-fashioned community schmoozing?
As for scary costumes: Of course, we should show a little more sensitivity in these times of fragility and frayed nerves. But there's no need to abandon wholesale the ghoulish fun of Halloween. Sam Karnick, editor in chief of the Hudson Institute's American Outlook magazine, noted in a National Review Online essay this weekend: "Far from being a trauma, Halloween gives children an opportunity to confront the most fearsome facts of life -- danger, powerlessness, human malevolence, and, most notably, death and decay -- and, through exaggeration, domestication, and outright mockery, to diminish and ultimately defeat them by making them less alien and momentous."
Even the tiniest toddler can demonstrate how familiarity helps conquer fear. For Halloween last year, my daughter's godparents sent her a furry spider that emits gibberish noises when you squeeze it. My daughter shrieked in horror and wouldn't go near it for months. A little later, after watching Mommy and Daddy babbling with the harmless creature, she very tentatively picked it up. Soon after, the spider's sounds triggered automatic giggling fits. Now, the once-fearsome spider sits atop a pile of been-there-done-that toys.
Meanwhile, my daughter has moved on to real, live insects. Toddling on the sidewalk, she froze the first time she saw a daddy long-legs ambling across her path. She ran back to me, clasped my neck, and squeaked anxiously. And then she went back and took a closer look. She's still a little wary of creepy-crawlies, but she no longer recoils in a paralyzed state of alarm.
When my daughter is older, we'll mark Halloween in a more somber way. We'll go to Mass together and pray for the souls of the dead. I'll do my best to teach her about faith, mortality, suffering and redemption. She will know that evil exists in the world -- and that you cannot defeat it if you refuse to confront it.
For now, though, my scampering little kitten awaits. As I walk hand in hand with my daughter this Halloween, the heavy shadow of terrorism yet lurks over the nation. Instead of retreating, we must be wide-eyed and wary. Ready for calm, but prepared for danger. Shaken by new and unknown fears, but unwilling ever to surrender.