The Disappearance of Chandra Levy, and Other Evils

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Evil drops in with that surprising air of nonchalance and swagger that Satan affects at the start of the Book of Job, when the sons of God come to present themselves before the Lord, and the Lord says to Satan, "Whence comest thou," and Satan, with his evasive, insinuating smirk, replies, "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it."

Evil works by sleight of hand: Poof! Your child is gone. Her life and all the details of it — clothes, computer, pocket book and so on — are just as she left them. But her keys are missing. And she is...where?

Of the evils that visit us, none, I guess, is harder to bear than the death of a child. That's the malignity that is really motiveless — or hardest to understand.

What about a child's disappearance? Is that even worse than a child's known death? The answer depends of course on the outcome. A vanishing, like that of Chandra Levy in Washington D.C. seven weeks ago, must in some ways compound the evil. It torments the parents by holding out the faintest possibility of hope. It condemns them to dangle in a state of anguish amounting to suspended animation. Gradually, their hope may brown out and expire, the way that a flashlight does as the batteries slowly go dead.

Chandra Levy was — I mean, is— not a child, but a 24-year-old woman: her parents' child in any case. They must bear the added mystery of her relationship (whatever that was) with the Congressman — a smear of prurient Washington intern-scandal. Evil, which can be so crummy and ordinary, always enjoys a tabloid touch. If it were not for the business about the Congressman, Gary Condit of California — made more titillating by his evasiveness — Chandra would have disappeared from the newspapers almost as abruptly as she vanished from her Washington apartment.

What could have happened? Those who have been suddenly lost, or seized, report later that their greatest fear was that no one would know what had happened to them. Evelyn Waugh wrote a hilariously spooky novel-as-parable called "A Handful of Dust," in which an Englishman, his marriage destroyed, joins an archaeological expedition to Brazil; the expedition falls apart, and the Englishman, hopelessly lost in deepest jungle, falls into the hands of an illiterate half-breed whose European father years before had left him a complete set of Dickens. The Englishman — vanished from civilization, lost to friends and family, presumed dead — lives on for years in the impenetrable Brazilian forest, held prisoner so that he might read Dickens aloud every afternoon to the brute with a taste for literature.

Meantime, evil goes to and fro in the earth, and walks up and down in it. In Thursday morning's edition of the New York Times, a Chandra Levy story appears on page A-22: "POLICE ASK CONGRESSMAN TO TALK ABOUT INTERN." Right next to that story is a picture of a woman wearing glasses, staring straight ahead, with her hands in her lap, and a caption that is disturbing in a different vein: "Andrea Yates in custody yesterday after calling officers to her Houston home, where her four sons and one daughter, ages 6 months to 7 years, had all apparently been drowned in a bathtub. The police said Ms. Yates had been fighting depression and had confessed to the killings."