America endures an endless night of the hunter

·4 min read

A Russian proverb: “Wherever God has a church, the Devil opens a chapel.”

As cops in Uvalde keep hiding behind officious language and their supposed respect for the kids they left to be slaughtered over the course of an hour, I keep thinking about “The Night of the Hunter,” the haunting 1955 film about children pursued by an evil man while the adults they’d counted on remain preoccupied with their own concerns.

That’s not just the father gunned down shortly after robbing a bank and delivering the proceeds to his 9-year-old son and with his dying breath swearing the boy and his 4-year-old sister to silence about the stolen money. Or the twisted man with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers calling himself Preacher and working to find the stolen loot by charming the small town with revival sermons while courting the widowed mother and menacing her kids to confess their secret.

It’s also the mother telling herself a story about Preacher and her spiritual redemption that deafens her to her kids’ fear of him. The townsfolk who adore the children but don’t listen to them. Adults who say or mean the right things but overlook what’s inconvenient.

Preacher finally murders the mother, and hunts the poor little lambs forced to flee their home and drift down the Ohio River, the little girl holding tight to her doll, until they’re found by a woman who immediately commands these filthy, wretched little strangers into her house to give them care and shelter along with the other stray children already under her stubborn watch.

While she tries to hide the two fugitives, Preacher finds them again, of course, and the children’s protector waits for him in a rocking chair, holding a shotgun, on her covered porch. He arrives at night, silent but for the crickets, and sits on a post outside and begins singing — slowly, beautifully — a refrain he repeats through the film:

Leaning, leaning

Safe and secure from all alarms

Leaning, leaning

Leaning on the everlasting arms

As the script instructs: “After a moment, we see her mouth open; and either to comfort herself or to drown out PREACHER’s voice, she joins in the hymn.”

It’s an uncanny duet, good and evil singing from the same hymnbook, that draws down one of the children with a candle and, as its light obscures the view from the porch, Preacher disappears. The camera cuts to an owl and then a rabbit, before the owl takes flight and there’s a screech.

The good woman says, truly, “It’s a hard world for little things.”

Later, she does shoot Preacher and the film ends with the boy beaming about getting a new watch for Christmas as the secreted money is released from inside the girl’s doll and the children are released to be children again.

“They abide and they endure,” says their protector.

My 10-year-old, who can’t help but see headlines and hear things from her friends, asked why somebody would do that to kids, and their teachers?

There’s no good reason, I told her, and tried to leave it there.

Didn’t they have police to protect them?

They did, I told her, but some of these ones didn’t do their job, and there’s no good reason for that either.

That’s terrible, she said, and I agreed and led her back to the game she’d been playing.

New York’s Democratic supermajority just passed legislation strengthening the state’s red-flag law, banning the sale of body armor like the Buffalo murderer put on and raising the age to buy a long gun to 21.

That seems like the least they could do, but it’s more than any other state has done so far and it may be more than is doable given the state of play in the courts and in Washington.

A California federal appeals court just struck down that state’s law raising the purchase age for semi-automatics to 21 as unconstitutional, and there will surely be a legal challenge to New York’s law. Meantime, the Supreme Court is poised to follow up its 2008 decision creating a constitutional right for individuals to have guns in their homes with one that will likely strike down New York’s strict permitting law and perhaps create an individual right to carry guns on the streets.

While the GOP is in near lockstep with this gun madness — one Republican rep in N.Y. who supported a new federal assault weapons ban just gave up his reelection bid days later after fierce blowback — the Democrats who control Congress are divided and thus eager to blame the other party to distract from their majority’s all but inevitable failure to do much more than signify and despair after each new senseless mass killing with a legally purchased weapon of war in a seemingly endless string.

Another Russian proverb: “When you live close to the graveyard, you can’t weep for everyone.”

harrysiegel@gmail.com