"Defining Deviancy Down"

American Scholar (Winter 1993)


DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN is senior United States Senator from New York.

He is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Pandemonium: Ethnicity

and International Politics.


Sociological Method (1895), Emile Durkheim set it down that "crime

is normal." "It is," he wrote, "completely impossible for any society

entirely free of it to exist." By defining what is deviant, we are enabled

to know what is not, and hence to live by shared standards. This apercu

appears in the chapter entitled "Rules for the Distinction of the Normal

from the Pathological." Durkheim writes:

From this viewpoint the fundamental facts of criminology appear to us in an

entirely new light.. . . [T]he criminal no longer appears as an utterly 110social)le

creature, a sort of parasitic element, a foreign, in assimilable body introduced into

the bosom of society. He plays a normal role in social life. For its part, crime must

no longer be conceived of as an evil which cannot be circumscribed closely

enough. Far from there being cause for congratulation when it drops too

noticeably below the normal level, this apparent progress assuredly coincides

with and is linked to some social disturbance.

Durkheim suggests, for example, that "in times of scarcity" crimes of

assault drop off. He does not imply that we ought to approve of

crime-- "[plain has likewise nothing desirable about it" --but we need

understand its function. He saw religion, in the sociologist Randall

Collins's terms, as "fundamentally a set of ceremonial actions, assem-

bling the group, heightening its emotions, and focusing its members on

symbols of their common belongingness." In this context "a punishment

ceremony creates social solidarity."

The matter was pretty much left at that until seventy years later

when, in 1965, Kai T. Erikson published Wayward Puritans, a study of

"crime rates" in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The plan behind the

hook, as Erikson put it, was "to test [Durkheim's] notion that the number

of deviant offenders a community can afford to recognize is likely to

remain stable over time." The notion proved out very well indeed.



Despite occasional crime waves, as when itinerant Quakers refused to

take off their hats in the presence of magistrates, the amount of deviance

in this corner of seventeenth-century New England fitted nicely with the

supply of stocks and whipping posts. Erikson remarks:

It is one of the arguments of the ... study that the amount of deviation a

community encounters is apt to remain fairly constant over time. To start at the

beginning, it is a simple logistic fact that the number of deviancies which come

to a community's attention are limited by the kinds of equipment it uses to detect

and handle them, and to that extent the rate of deviation found in a community

is at least in part a function of the size and complexity of its social control

apparatus. A community's capacity for handling deviance, let us say, can be

roughly estimated by counting its prison cells and hospital beds, its policemen

and psychiatrists, its courts and clinics. Most communities, it would seem,

operate with the expectation that a relatively constant number of control agents

is necessary to cope with a relatively constant number of offenders. The amount

of men, money, and material assigned by society to "do something" about

deviant behavior does not vary appreciably over time, and the implicit logic

which governs the community's efforts to man a police force or maintain suitable

facilities for the mentally ill seems to be that there is a fairly stable quota of

trouble which should be anticipated.

In this sense, the agencies of control often seem to define their job as that of

keeping deviance within bounds rather than that of obliterating it altogether.

Many judges, for example, assume that severe punishments are a greater

deterrent to crime than moderate ones, and so it is important to note that many

of them are apt to impose harder penalties when crime seems to he on the

Increase and more lenient ones when it does not, almost as if the power of the

bench were being used to keep the crime rate from getting out of hand.

Erikson was taking issue with what he described as "a dominant

strain in sociological thinking" that took for granted that a well-structured

society "is somehow designed to prevent deviant behavior from

occurring." In both authors, Durkheim and Erikson, there is an under-

tone that suggests that, with deviancy, as with most social goods, there is

the continuing problem of demand exceeding supply. Durkheim invites

us to

imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes,

properly so called, will there be unknown; but faults which appear venial to the

layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in

ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish,

it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such.

Recall Durkheim's comment that there need be no cause for congratu-

lations should the amount of crime drop "too noticeably below the

normal level. It would not appear that Durkheim anywhere contem-

plates the possibility of too much crime. Clearly his theory would have

required him to deplore such a development, but the possibility seems

never to have occurred to him.

Erikson, writing much later in the twentieth century, contemplates

both possibilities. "Deviant persons can be said to supply needed

services to society." There is no doubt a tendency for the supply of any

needed thing to run short. But he is consistent. There can, he believes,

be too much of a good thing. Hence 'the number of deviant offenders a

community can afford to recognize is likely to remain stable over time."

[My emphasis]

Social scientists are said to he on the lookout for poor fellows getting

a bum rap. But here is a theory that clearly implies that there are

circumstances in which society will choose not to notice behavior that

would be otherwise controlled, or disapproved, or even punished.

It appears to me that this is in fact what we in the United States have

been doing of late. I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation,

since the time Erikson wrote, the amount of deviant behavior in

American society has increased beyond the levels the community can

"afford to recognize" and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining

deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also

quietly raising the "normal" level in categories where behavior is now

abnormal by any earlier standard. This redefining has evoked fierce

resistance from defenders of "old" standards, and accounts for much of

the present "cultural war" such as proclaimed by many at the 1992

Republican National Convention.

Let me, then, offer three categories of redefinition in these

the altruistic, the opportunistic, and the normalizing.

The first category, the altruistic, may be illustrated by the deinsti-

tutionalization movement within the mental health profession that

appeared in the 1950s. The second category, the opportunistic, is seen in

the interest group rewards derived from the acceptance of "alternative"

family structures. The third category, the normalizing, is to be observed

in the growing acceptance of unprecedented levels of violent crime.


It happens that I was present at the beginning of the deinstitution-

alization movement. Early in 1955 Averell Harriman, then the new

governor of New York, met with his new commissioner of mental

hygiene, Dr. Paul Hoch, who described the development, at one of the

state mental hospitals, of a tranquilizer derived from rauwolfia. The

medication had been clinically tested and appeared to be an effective

treatment for many severely psychotic patients, thus increasing the

percentage of patients discharged. Dr. Hoch recommended that it

used systemwide; Harriman found the money. That same year Congress

created a Joint Commission on Mental Health and Illness whose mission

was to formulate "comprehensive and realistic recommendations" in

this area, which was then a matter of considerable public concern. Year

after year, the population of mental institutions grew. Year after year,

new facilities had to be built. Never mind the complexities: population

growth and such like matters. There was a general unease. Durkheim's

constant continued to be exceeded. (In Spanning the Century: The Life I

of W. Averell Harriman, Rudy Abramson writes: "New York's mental

hospitals in 1955 were overflowing warehouses, and new patients were

being admitted faster than space could be found for them. When he was

inaugurated, 94,000 New Yorkers were confined to state hospitals.

Admissions were running at more than 2,500 a year and rising, making

the Department of Mental Hygiene the fastest-growing, most-expensive,

most-hopeless department of state government.")

The discovery of tranquilizers was adventitious. Physicians were

seeking cures for disorders that were just beginning to be understood.

Even a limited success made it possible to believe that the incidence of

this particular range of disorders, which had seemingly required persons

to be confined against their will or even awareness, could be greatly

reduced. The Congressional Commission submitted its report in 1961; it

proposed a nationwide program of deinstitutionalization.

Late in 1961, President Kennedy appointed an interagency commit-

tee to prepare legislative recommendations based upon the report. I

represented Secretary of Labor Arthur J. Goldberg on this committee

and drafted its final submission. This included the recommendation of

the National Institute of Mental Health that 2,000 community mental

health centers (one per 100,000 of population) be built by 1980. A

buoyant Presidential Message to Congress followed early in 1963. "If we

apply our medical knowledge and social insights fully," President

Kennedy pronounced, "all but a small portion of the mentally ill can

eventually achieve a wholesome and a constructive social adjustment."

A "concerted national attack on mental disorders [was] 110W possible and

practical." The President signed the Community Mental Health Centers

Construction Act on October 31, 1963, his last public bill-signing

ceremony. He gave me a pen.

The mental hospitals emptied out. At the time Governor Harriman

met with Dr. Hoch in 1955, there were 93,314 adult residents of mental

institutions maintained by New York State. As of August 1992, there

were 11,363. This occurred across the nation. however, the number of

community mental health centers never came near the goal of the 2,000

proposed community centers. Only some 482 received federal construc-

tion funds between 1963 and 1980. The next year, 1981, the program was

folded into the Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse block grant and disap-

peared from view. Even when centers were built, the results were

hardly as hoped for. David F. Musto of Yale writes that the planners had

bet on improving national mental health "by improving the quality of

general community life through expert knowledge, not merely by more

effective treatment of the already ill." There was no such knowledge.

However, worse luck, the belief that there was such knowledge took

hold within sectors of the profession that saw institutionalization as an

unacceptable mode of social control. These activists subscribed to a

re-defining mode of their own. Mental patients were said to have been

"labeled," and were not to be drugged. Musto says of the battles that

followed that they were "so intense and dramatic precisely because both

sides shared the fantasy of an omnipotent and omniscient mental health

technology which could thoroughly reform society; the prize seemed

eminently worth fighting for."

But even as the federal government turned to other matters, the

Mental institutions continued to release inmates. Professor Fred Siegel

of Cooper Union observes: "In the great wave of moral deregulation that

began in the mid-1960s, the poor and the insane were freed from the

fetters of in middle-class u mores." They might henseforth sleep in doorways

as often as they chose. The problem of the homeless appeared, charac-

teristically defined as persons who lacked "affordable housing."

The altruistic mode of redefinition is just that. There is no reason to

believe that there was any real increase in mental illness at the time

deinstitutionalization began. Yet there was such a perception, and this

enabled good people to try to do good, however unavailing in the end.


Our second, or opportunistic mode of redefinition, reveals at most a

nominal intent to do good. The true object is to do well, a long-

established motivation among mortals. In this pattern, a growth in

deviancy makes possible a transfer of resources, including prestige, to-

those who control the deviant population. This control would be jeop-

ardized if any serious effort were made to reduce the deviancy in

question. This leads to assorted strategies for re-defining the behavior in

question as not all that deviant, really.

In the years from 1963 to 1965, the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S.

Department of Labor picked up the first tremors of what Samuel H.

Preston, in the 1984 Presidential Address to the Population Association

of America, would call "the earthquake that shuddered through the

American family in the past twenty years." The New York Times recently

provided a succinct accounting of Preston's point:

Thirty years ago, 1 in every 40 white children was born to an unmarried mother;

today it is 1 in 5, according to Federal data. Among blacks, 2 of 3 children are

born to an unmarried mother; 30 years ago the figure was 1 in 5.

In 1991, Paul Offner and I published longitudinal data showing that,

of children born in the years 1967-69, some 22.1 percent were depen-

dent on welfare - that is to say, Aid to Families with Dependent

Children - before reaching age 18. This broke down as 15.7 percent for

white children, 72.3 percent for black children. Projections for children

born in 1980 gave rates of 22.2 percent and 82.9 percent respectively. A

year later, a New York Times series on welfare and poverty called this a

"startling finding ... symptom of vast social calamity."

And yet there is little evidence that these facts are regarded as a

calamity in municipal government. To the contrary, there is general

acceptance of the situation as normal. Political candidates raise the

subject, often to the point of dwelling on it, But while there is a good

deal of demand for symbolic change, there is none of the marshaling of

resources that is associated with significant social action. Nor is there any

lack of evidence that there is a serious social problem here.

Richard T. Gill writes of "an accumulation of data showing that intact

biological parent families offer children very large advantages compared

to any other family or non-family structure one can imagine." Corre-

spondingly, the disadvantages associated with single-parent families

spill over into other areas of social policy that now attract great public

concern. Leroy L. Schwartz, M.D., and Mark W. Stanton argue that the,

real quest regarding a government-run health system such as that of

Canada or Germany is whether it would work "in a country that has

social problems that countries like Canada and Germany don't share to

the same extent." Health problems reflect ways of living. The way of life

associated with "such social pathologies as the breakdown of the family

structure" lead to medical pathologies. Schwartz and Stanton conclude:

"The United States is paying dearly for its social and behavioral

problems," for they have now become medical problems as well.

To cite another example, there is at present no more vexing problem

of social policy in the United States than that posed by education. A

generation of ever-more ambitious statutes and reforms have produced

weak responses at best and a fair amount of what could more simply be

called dishonesty. ("Everyone knows that Head Start works." By the

year 2000, American students will "be first in the world in science and

mathematics.") None of this should surprise us. The 1966 report Equal-

ity of Educational Opportunity by James S. Coleman and his associates

established that the family background of students played a much

stronger role in student achievement relative to variations in the ten (and

still standard) measures of school quality.

In a 1992 study entitled America's Smallest School: The Family, Paul

Barton came up with the elegant and persuasive concept of the parent-

pupil ratio as a measure of school quality. Barton, who was on the policy

planning staff in the Department of Labor in 1965, noted the great

increase in the proportion of children living in single-parent families

since then. He further noted that the proportion "varies widely among

the states" and is related to "variation in achievement" among them. The

correlation between the percentage of eighth graders living in two-

parent families and average mathematics proficiency is a solid .74. North

Dakota, highest on the math test, is second highest on the family

compositions scale - that is, it is second in the percentage of kids coming

from two-parent homes. The District of Columbia, lowest on the family

scale, is second lowest in the test score.

A few months before Barton's study appeared, I published an article

showing that the correlation between eighth-grade math scores and

distance of state capitals from the Canadian border was .522, a respect-

able showing. By contrast, the correlation with per pupil expenditure

was a derisory .203. I offered the policy proposal that states wishing to

improve their schools should move closer to Canada. This would be

difficult, of course, but so would it be to change the parent-pupil ratio.

Indeed, the 1990 Census found that for the District of Columbia, apart

from Ward 3 west of Rock Creek Park, the percentage of children living

in single-parent families in the seven remaining wards ranged from a low

of 63.6 percent to a high of 75.7. This being a One-time measurement,

over time the proportions become asymptotic. And this in the nation's

capital. No demand for change comes from that community - or as near

to no demand as makes no matter. For there is good money to be made

out of bad schools. This is a statement that will no doubt please many a

hard heart, and displease many genuinely concerned to bring about

change. To the latter, a group in which I would like to include myself, I

would only say that we are obliged to ask why things do not change.

For a period there was some speculation that, if family structure got

bad enough, this mode of deviancy would have less punishing effects on

children. In 1991 Deborah A. Dawson of the National Institutes of

Health, examined the thesis that "the psychological effects of divorce

and single parenthood on children were strongly influenced by a sense

of shame in being 'different' from the norm." If this were so, the effect

should have fallen off in the 1980s, when being from a single-parent

home became much more common. It did not. "The problems associated

with task overload among single parents are more constant in nature,"

Dawson wrote, adding that since the adverse effects had not diminished,

they were "not based on stigmatization but rather on inherent problems

in alternative family structures" - alternative here meaning other than

two-parent families. We should take note of such candor. Writing in the

Journal of Marriage and the Family in 1989, Sara McLanahan and Karen

Booth noted: "Whereas a decade ago the prevailing view was that single

motherhood had no harmful effects on children, recent research is less


The year 1990 saw more of this lesson. In a paper prepared for the

Progressive Policy Institute, Elaine Ciulla Kamarck and William A.

Galston wrote that "if the economic effects of family breakdown are

clear, the psychological effects are just now coming into focus." They

cite Karl Zinsmeister:

There is a mountain of scientific evidence showing that when families disinte-

grate children often end up with intellectual, physical, and emotional scars that

persist for life.... We talk about the drug crisis, the education crisis, and the

problems of teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. But all these ills trace back

predominantly to one source: broken families.

As for juvenile crime, they cite Douglas Smith and C. Roger Jarjoura:

"Neighborhoods with larger percentages of youth (those aged 12 to 20)

and areas with higher percentages of single-parent households also have

higher rates of violent crime." They add: "The relationship is so strong

that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between

race and crime and between low income and crime. This conclusion

shows up time and time again in the literature; poverty is far from the

sole determinant of crime." But the large point is avoided. In a 1992

essay The Expert's Story of Marriage," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

examined "the story of marriage as it is conveyed in today's high school

and college textbooks." Nothing amiss in this tale.

It goes like this:

The life course is full of exciting options. The lifestyle options available to

individuals seeking a fulfilling personal relationship include living a heterosex-

ual, homosexual, or bisexual single lifestyle; living in a commune; having a

group marriage; beings single parent; or living together. Marriage is yet another

lifestyle choice. However, before choosing marriage, individuals should weigh

its costs and benefits against other lifestyle options and should consider what

they want to get out of their intimate relationships. Even within marriage,

different people want different things. For example, some people marry for

companionship, some marry in order to have children, some marry for emotional

and financial security. Though marriage can offer a rewarding path to personal

growth, it is important to remember that it cannot provide a secure or permanent

status. Many people will make the decision between marriage and singlehood

many times throughout their life.

Divorce represents part of the normal family life cycle. It should not be viewed

as either deviant or tragic, as it has been in the past. Rather, it establishes a

process for "uncoupling" and thereby serves as the foundation for individual

renewal and "new beginnings."

History commences to be rewritten. In 1992, the Select Committee

on Children, Youth, and Families of the U.S. House of Representatives

held a hearing on "Investing in Families: A Historical Perspective." A

fact sheet prepared by committee staff began:





While in modern times the percentage of children living with one parent has

increased, more children lived with just one parent in Colonial America.

The fact sheet proceeded to list program on program for which federal

funds were allegedly reduced in the l980s. We then come to a summary.

Between 1970 and 1991, the value of AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent

Children] benefits decreased by 41%. In spite of proven success of Head Start,

only 28% of eligible children are being served. As of 1990, more than $18 billion

in child support went uncollected. At the same time, the poverty rate among

single-parent with children under 18 was 44%. Between 1980 and 1990,

the rate of growth in the total Federal budget was four times greater than the rate of growth in children's programs.

In other words, benefits paid to mothers and children have gone down

steadily, as indeed they have done. But no proposal is made to restore

benefits to an earlier level, or even to maintain their value, as is the case

with other "indexed" Social Security programs. Instead we go directly to

the subject of education spending.

Nothing new. In 1969, President Nixon proposed a guaranteed

income, the Family Assistance Plan. This was described as an "income

strategy" as against a "services strategy." It may or may not have been a

good idea, but it was a clear one, and the resistance of service providers

to it was equally clear. In the end it was defeated, to the huzzahs of the

advocates of "welfare rights." What is going on here is simply that a large

increase in what once was seen as deviancy has provided opportunity to

a wide spectrum of interest groups that benefit from re-defining the

problem as essentially normal and doing little to reduce it.


Our normalizing category most directly corresponds to Erikson's

proposition that "the number of deviant offenders a community can

afford to recognize is likely to remain stable over time." Here we are

dealing with the popular psychological notion of "denial." In 1965,

having reached the conclusion that there would be a dramatic increase in

single-parent families, I reached the further conclusion that this would

in turn lead to a dramatic increase in crime. In an article in America, I


From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn

suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a

community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken

families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male

authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future - that

community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing

out at the whole social structure - that is not only to be expected; it is very near

to inevitable.

The inevitable, as we now know, has come to pass, but here again our

response is curiously passive. Crime is a more or less continuous subject

of political pronouncement, and from time to time it will be at or near the

top of opinion polls as a matter of public concern. But it never gets much

further than that. In the words spoken from the bench, Judge Edwin

Torres of the New York State Supreme Court, Twelfth Judicial District,

described how "the slaughter of the innocent marches unabated: subway

riders, bodega owners, cab drivers, babies; in laundromats, at cash

machines, on elevators, in hallways." In personal communication, he

writes: "This numbness, this near narcoleptic state can diminish the

human condition to the level of combat infantrymen, who, in protracted

campaigns, can eat their battlefield rations seated on the bodies of the

fallen, friend and foe alike. A society that loses its sense of outrage is

doomed to extinction." There is no expectation that this will change, nor

any efficacious public insistence that it do so. The crime level has been


Consider the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. In 1929 in Chicago

during Prohibition, four gangsters killed seven gangsters on February

14. The nation was shocked. The event became legend. It merits not one

but two entries in the World Book Encyclopedia. I leave it to others to

judge, but it would appear that the society in the 1920s was simply not

willing to put up with this degree of deviancy. In the end, the Consti-

tution was amended, and Prohibition, which lay behind so much

gangster violence, ended.

In recent years, again in the context of illegal traffic in controlled

substances, this form of murder has returned. But it has done so at a level

that induces denial. James Q. Wilson comments that Los Angeles has the

equivalent of a St. Valentine's Day Massacre every weekend. Even the

most ghastly re-enactments of such human slaughter produce only

moderate responses. On the morning after the close of the Democratic

National Convention in New York City in July, there was such an

account in the second section of the New York Times. It was not a big

story; bottom of the page, but with a headline that got your attention. "3

Slain in Bronx Apartment, but a Baby is Saved." A subhead continued:

"A mother's last act was to hide her little girl under the bed." The article

described a drug execution; the now-routine blindfolds made from duct

tape; a man and a woman and a teenager involved. "Each had been shot

once in the head." The police had found them a day later. They also

found, under a bed, a three-month-old baby, dehydrated but alive. A

lieutenant remarked of the mother, "In her last dying act she protected

her baby. She probably knew she was going to die, so she stuffed the

baby where she knew it would be safe." But the matter was left there.

The police would do their best. But the event passed quickly; forgotten

by the next clay, it will never make World Book.

Nor is it likely that any great heed will be paid to an uncanny

reenactment of the Prohibition drama a few months later, also in the

Bronx. The Time's story, page B3, reported:

9 Men Posing as Police

Are Indicted in 3 Murders

Drug Dealers Were Kidnapped for Ransom

The Daily News story, same day, page 17, made it four murders,

adding nice details about torture techniques. The gang members posed

as federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents, real badges and all.

The victims were drug dealers, whose families were uneasy about

calling the police. Ransom seems generally to have been set in the

$650,000 range. Some paid. Some got it in the back of the head. So it


Yet, violent killings, often random, go on unabated. Peaks continue to

attract some notice. But these are peaks above "average" levels that

thirty years ago would have been thought epidemic.

LOS ANGELES, AUG. 24. (Reuters) Twenty-two people were killed in Los

Angeles over the weekend, the worst period of violence in the city since it was

ravaged by riots earlier this year, the police said today.

Twenty-four others were wounded by gunfire or stabbings, including a 19-year

old woman in a wheelchair who was shot in the back when she failed to respond

to a motorist who asked for directions in south Los Angeles.

["The guy stuck a gun out of the window and just fired at her," said a police

spokesman, Lieut. David Rock. The woman was later described as being in

stable condition.

Among those who died was an off-duty officer, shot while investigating reports

of a prowler in a neighbor's yard, and a Little League baseball coach who had

argued with the father of a boy he was coaching.]

The police said at least nine of the deaths were gang-related, including that of

a 14-year old girl killed in a fight between rival gangs.

Fifty-one people were killed in three days of rioting that started April 29 after

the acquittal of four police officers in the heating of Rodney G. King.

Los Angeles usually has above-average violence during August, but the police

were at a loss to explain the sudden rise. On an average weekend in August, 14

fatalities occur.

Not to be outdone, two days later the poor Bronx came tip with a new

record, as reported in New York Newsday:

Armed with 9-mm, pistols, shotguns and M -16 rifles, a group of masked men and

women poured out of two vehicles in the South Bronx early yesterday and

sprayed a stretch of Longwood Avenue with a fusillade of bullets, injuring 12


A Kai Erikson of the future will surely need to know that the Department

of justice in 1990 found that Americans reported only about 38 percent

of all crimes and 48 percent of violent crimes. This, too, can be seen as

a means of normalizing crime. In much the same way, the vocabulary of

crime reporting can he seems to move toward the normal-seeming. A

teacher is shot on her way to class. The Times subhead reads: "Struck in

the Shoulder in the Year's First Shooting Inside a School." First of the


It is too early, however, to know how to regard the arrival of the

doctors on the scene declaring crime a "public health emergency." The

June 10, 1992, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association

was devoted entirely to papers on the subject of violence, principally

violence associated with firearms. An editorial in the issue signed by

former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Dr. George D. Lundberg

is entitled: "Violence in America: A Public Health Emergency." Their

proposition is admirably succinct.

Regarding violence in our society as purely a sociological matter, or one of law

enforcement, has led to unmitigated failure. It is time to test further whether

violence can be amenable to medical/public health interventions.

We believe violence in America to be a public health emergency, largely

unresponsive to methods thus far used in its control. The solutions are very

complex, but possible.

The authors cited the relative success of epidemiologists in gaining

some jurisdiction in the area of motor vehicle casualties by re-defining what

had been seen as a law enforcement issue into a public health issue. Again,

this process began during the Harriman administration in New York in the

1950s. In the 1960s the morbidity and mortality associated with automobile

crashes was, it could be argued, a major public health problem; the

public healths strategy, it could also be argued, brought the problem

under a measure of control. Not in "the 1970s and 1980s," as the Journal

of the American Medical Association would have us think: the federal

legislation involved was signed in 1965. Such a strategy would surely

produce insights into the control of violence that elude law enforcement

professionals, but whether it would change anything is another question.

For some years now I have had legislation in the Senate that would

prohibit the manufacture of .25 and .32 caliber bullets. These are the two

calibers most typically used with the guns known as Saturday Night

Specials. "Guns don't kill people, I argue, "bullets do."

Moreover, we have a two - century supply of handguns but only a four-

year supply of ammunition. A public health official would immediately

see the logic of trying to control the supply of bullets rather than of guns.

Even so, now that the doctor has come, it is important that criminal

violence not be defined down by epidemiologists. Doctors Koop and

Lundberg note that in 1990 in the state of Texas "deaths from firearms,

For the first time in many decades, surpassed deaths from motor vehicles,

by 3,443 to 3,309." A good comparison. And yet keep in mind that the

number of motor vehicle deaths, having leveled off since the 1960s is

now pretty well accepted as normal at somewhat less than 50,000 a year,

which is somewhat less than the level of the 1960's - the "carnage," as it

once was thought to be, is now accepted as normal. This is the price we

pay for high-speed transportation: there is a benefit associated with it.

But there is no benefit associated with homicide, and no good in getting

used to it. Epidemiologists have powerful insights that can contribute to

lessening the medical trauma, but they must be wary of normalizing the

social pathology that leads to such trauma.


The hope - if there be such - of this essay has been twofold. It is, first,

to suggest that the Durkheim constant, as I put it, is maintained by a

dynamic process which adjusts upwards and downwards. Liberals have

traditionally been alert for upward redefining that does injustice to

individuals. Conservatives have been correspondingly sensitive to

downward redefining that weakens societal standards. Might it not help

if we could all agree that there is a dynamic at work here? It is not

revealed truth, nor yet a scientifically derived formula. It is simply a

pattern we observe in ourselves. Nor is it rigid. There may once have

been an unchanging supply of jail cells which more or less determined

the number of prisoners. No longer. We are building new prisons at a

prodigious rate. Similarly, the executioner is back. There is something of

a competition in Congress to think up new offenses for which the death

penalty is seemed the only available deterrent. Possibly also modes of

execution, as in "fry the kingpins." Even so, we are getting used to a lot

of behavior that is not good for us.

As noted earlier, Durkheim states that there is "nothing desirable"

about pain. Surely what he meant was that there is nothing pleasurable.

Pain, even so, is an indispensable warning signal. But societies under

stress, much like individuals, will turn to pain killers of various kinds

that end up concealing real damage. There is surely nothing desirable

about this. If our analysis wins general acceptance, if, for example, more

of us came to share Judge Torres's genuine alarm at "the trivialization of

the lunatic crime rate' in his city (and mine), we might surprise

ourselves how well we respond to the manifest decline of the American

civic order. Might.