TO A 7-YEAR-OLD, at least one who lives at my house, the world as it comes to him on television is divided into good guys and bad guys. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference and so he asks me. Over the years I've told him the cops are good guys and crooks are bad guys and that bad guys beat women, break things, and punch so ineffectively that they almost never leave any marks on good guys. Then he asks me about the Incredible Hulk.

"Daddy," he asks, "is the Incredible Hulk a good guy or a bad guy?"

I start to answer but it is not easy to do so. The Incredible Hulk, for those who have not seen the show or read the book [the comic book, that is] is Dr. David Banner who, when he becomes enraged, turns into a seven-foot-tall, 1,000-pound monster with a green hue. The Hulk is short on subtlety and what he does, usually, is break up anything he can get his hands on. Since he is big and strong like the late ape, Mr. Kong, this includes, houses, cars, furniture and sometimes people.

Banner is without a doubt a good guy. He's always trying to do the right thing, lines up invariably on the side of the angels and he fears the hulk in him. He fights it when he feels it coming on, much like Jimmy Carter and lust, and he warns people that something terrible is about to happen.

In one episode, he tries to tell a bully that there were unforeseen consequences for jabbing him in the chest but the bully would not listen. As a result, Banner became the Hulk, threw the bully and his friends though the wall and demolished the building they were all in. You couldn't say he didn't warn them.

Ah, you say -- he's a good guy. Not so fast. The bully's friends had nothing to do with what was happening and the place where the bully was doing the bullying was owned by a widow whom Banner was trying to help. The scorecard thus is one bad guy down, one good guy down, and one destroyed bunk house owned by a good, not-to-mention widowed, woman. This makes for complexity.

I suppose the Hulk is what Freudians would call the Id -- the animal in all of us. He's in me, certainly, when I'm in a traffic jam and I loved it when I was told that once the Hulk ripped the door off a New York cab when the driver gave him some lip. Right on, Hulk! But besides being the Id, or even an update of the old King Kong number, the Hulk is really a television series about the old M'Naghten rule -- the inability to tell the difference between right and wrong, what is sometimes called temporary insanity.

In episode after episode, an essentially good man goes bonkers. It is always temporary, always in the ultimate cause of good, but it is always awfully destructive and in those few moments of hulkian holocaust a lot gets accomplished -- or smashed. No matter. What matters is that this show is really about a kind of national disease, a feeling that rage or hostility is understandable and, in some way, excusable -- as if feeling something strongly enough forgives whatever follows as long as the next feeling is remorse. In other words, if you feel sorry for what you've done, you have sort of not done it.

There are lots of examples of this sort of thing and I might as well start with the 7-year-old who started all of this. When confronted with some porch slats kicked into the front yard, he copped an insanity plea: "I don't know why I did it, I must have been out of my mind."

What followed next, of course, was remorse and then the promise never to do it again. With that, the issue is closed -- as far as he's concerned. Just about the same thing happened with Dan White, the San Francisco councilman who killed two of his political enemies -- Mayor George Mascone and Councilman Harvey Milk -- and then pleaded the equivalent of temporary insanity. In terms of getting a reduced sentence, the jury bought it.

It is, of course, impossible at a distance of 3,000 miles to say that White was not insane. It is possible, though, to point to out that he is probably no more insane than any other political assassin, including Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray. The difference in his case is that he killed for the cause of heterosexuality which is something with which a jury can identify, and not race hatred, as in the case of Ray, or muddled ethnic chauvinism as in the case of the Palestinian, Sirhan.

It is somewhat the same with our not-so-jolly green friend, the Hulk. His enemies are our enemies and even when he destroys a taxi we can identify. One one level he is about the monster in all of us -- how we behave in traffic, for instance -- but on another level he is about how we are doing away with right and wrong and substituting instead sane and insane. There are times when this makes sense but there are also times when it is nothing but a copout, when it is used to duck responsibility -- when it amounts to a secular way of saying the devil made you do it. No amount of feeling sorry afterwards changes matters, puts back the porch slats or brings back Milk and Moscone.

This is why I think the Incredible Hulk is a bad guy, worse even than an outright crook. But my son remains unconvinced and so, being a journalist, I lifted the phone and called the show's supervisory producer, Nike Corea, and put the question to him. He seemed chagrined that I would ask, the answer being so obvious. The Hulk, he said, was a good guy. He gave me all the usual reasons, stuff about not killing anyone and then he said, "He's always sorry for what's he's done."

Oh.