I WAS walking in the park last week with two three-year-olds. The girl, holding my left hand, was talking to me about her new pink necklace. The boy - my son - was holding my other hand and pointing out sticks on the ground. "There's a gun, Mummy." Another stick. "Look, Mummy, another gun."
The news that a six-year-old boy shot dead a girl of the same age at an American elementary school on Tuesday took me back to that day in the park. What made those two children, both brought up by nauseatingly PC parents, so different from each other? My son has never been given a toy gun (OK, he's got a water pistol) and they are banned in his nursery. His friend had no jewellery until she was old enough to put a ribbon round her own neck.
I know that the first time my son saw a gun it hit home. He sat mesmerised by a television programme that began at 6.30pm. It wasn't a nasty programme, rather moral in fact. The good guys were sensitive, caring chaps, they always won and the violence wasn't more than a few minor fist fights and some mild shoot outs. But from the moment a gun appeared from a holster and its owner took aim and fired my son was hooked.
"Bang, bang, you're dead, Mummy" became the new game. I grew accustomed to tripping over pretend corpses in the kitchen and giving apologetic smiles to customers in shops as I dragged him up off the floor. "But I'm dead, Mummy." Every implement could be a gun and in the absence of sticks, brooms or spoons then a finger would do.
Should I worry? I played Cowboys and Indians when I was young, so did his father, so has every adult, haven't they? The pleasure in pointing a finger and going "bang, bang" is that of a game. It's not violence, just a mixture of chase and hide and seek. It shouldn't be taken seriously. Perhaps taking it seriously will give my son a thing about guns (something else to worry about).
And yet, and yet ... somewhere in this child there is a fascination with the trappings of violence. It's not just him, I hasten to add. He's a nice boy. Scared of the letter W actually, because it stands for "witch". Doesn't like the Thomas the Tank Engine story called Dirty Objects because one of the locomotives gets coered in oil.
Shakespeare recognised the problem "as flies to wanton boys". So did William Golding. Tim Page, a Vietnam War photographer, thrilled to the "glamour" of choppers, bombs and young GIs. And I saw it in action at the weekend when a group of three-year-olds ganged up on a one-year-old. "Let's fight Danny," they giggled. Horrible.
So why do we titilate ourselves with violence? Society, particularly that of America, panders to our weakness. Magazines are launched to exploit it. Hollywood makes money out of it.
And every time America suffers a tragedy, a Columbine or a Buell, the same questions are raised. Are guns too accessible? In the land of the free should civil liberties or children be sacrificed? Yet America does not change its ways and we, essentially an outpost of the Yankie empire, carry on worshipping at the shrine of Disney, Hollywood, Tarantino and Stallone.
Clinton wrings his hands, the Rifle Association holds him hostage. The gun culture permeates our consciousness even if we keep the hardware out of our shops.
But perhaps all this fake violence acts as humanity's safety valve. I should be pleased that millions queue to watch Arnie Schwarzenegger. Delighted when I see countryfolk load up their four-wheel drives at the weekend in order to go out and shoot small beasts. Impressed that so many city dwellers relax by shooting paint balls or laser guns at each other.
But I'm a wimp who is scared by tomato-ketchup blood in old movies. I know that endless research has scoffed at any link between TV violence and what happens in the real world, but I decline to agree. We are steeped in blood these days. It is much worse then when I was a child. There is little television I can watch with my son after 6pm - - and probably before - that doesn't make me wince.
Time and again it has been proved that children are capable of cruelty. They can make vicious bullies and occasional murderers. Tony Blair has clamped down on guns, now we should tackle the more insidious influence of a culture of violence. I know it's all been said before but please don't let the American way of dying become ours.
Stephanie Northen is a journalist