Defining Deviancy Down -- and Airbrushing It Into the Memory Hole

In 1993,  Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote “Defining Deviancy Down,” in which he noted:

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 normalized.

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 Constitution 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.


And such events will never make a speech by the current president: “In Which Obama Fails To Mention A Single Instance Of Gun Violence in Chicago,” Aleister of the American Glob blog writes today.


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