Hydra-headed faces of a modern Halloween

Posted: Oct 31, 2002 12:00 AM
With the men everyone believes to be the Washington snipers behind bars, our children are free to celebrate their own spooks, goblins, witches and werewolves. Halloween couldn't come at a better time. Whether the tots dress up as the devil's disciples or the devil himself (or someone more benign, Luke Skywalker, Superman or even Mr. Electricity), they can take control of the spooks in their imaginations, making them disappear as easily as cutting through spiderwebs. That's what Halloween is about, cutting the ghosts and goblins down to life size, scary as in make-believe, sinister as in a fairy tale, frightening as in an animated cartoon. Children can pin the tail on the donkey's skeleton if they want to, bob for apples, put their hands in cold noodles and howl like the wind on a wintry night. But when Mommy and Daddy tuck them into bed, the nightmares are banished with wishes for "pleasant dreams." The nightlight keeps the monsters away. Such is the succor of childhood, testing the limits in a fantasy world, reducing the demons that haunt the corners of the imagination until they can move to a manageable make-believe. Adults, alas, have to deal with another problem. We're face-to-face with the real thing, unmasked, and rendering it harmless is not so easy. The law, we hope, will make short work of the snipers, even as we debate whether they should stay behind bars forever, like the animals of the zoo, or ride the poison needle into eternity. The community mourns for the dead but takes heart in the return to order, as at the curtain of a Shakespeare tragedy. Just as Macduff kills Macbeth to reinstate calm in Scotland, so Chief Moose and his men restore calm along the Capital Beltway. The international monsters are of a very different order, a terror not so easily subdued by the imagination. This year Halloween vendors are selling Osama bin Laden fright masks. We don't know whether he's alive or dead, but we do know that he's hydra-headed with look-alikes in al-Qaida cells all over the Middle East (and maybe here, too), plotting to kill innocents wherever they are. The suicide bombers don't have to celebrate Halloween; they dress their children in costumes with belts of bombs strapped around their tummies. Good little boys and girls can grow up to be martyrs. No matter how fervent Chechnya's desire for independence, the hostage taking in a Moscow theater was a terrorist strategy to kill the innocent, including children. When the horror was over, the hall was littered with bodies that couldn't get up when the curtain went down. The gas that seeped into the auditorium was not a harmless atmospheric effect, or even a temporary anesthetic, but a deadly poison, killing all with the cold neutrality of technology. This was a gas that was delivered by Soviet commandos in an attempt to save the hostages. So now there's another new weapon in the world's arsenal that we have to fear. We can assume that the gas was not used recklessly. Vladimir Putin was confronted with a crisis where he feared all the hostages would die. He surely did not intend for the innocent to die with the guilty. Whatever went into the decision to use it, the gas turned a hero into defensive politician. But distinctions are important. Terrorists employ terrorist tactics without concern for human life. Surely this makes the argument for a preventive war with Iraq all the more compelling. How much harder to fight against Saddam Hussein after he has obtained weapons of mass destruction than before he can employ them. We know he didn't hesitate to use poison gas against the Kurds. He's a monster for anyone's Halloween. Lots of children this Halloween will dress as monsters, but the rush at the costume stores has been for "super saviors," Spiderman and the Powerpuff girls, who triumph over evil in fantastical ways. Spiderman, a modern Tarzan in a city-jungle filled with muggers and meanies, swings through the air on spiderwebs defeating his enemies. Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup, armed with sugar and spice and chemical X, foil mutant monkey Mojo Jojo's plan to take over the world. That's fine for cartoons. But real life villains require the real thing. The devil can take on many shapes and speak with a forked tongue on Halloween or any other night. But we aren't children and we can't afford to be fooled.