THE BLOG
01/04/2013 04:12 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

The Age of Newtown

It's been only three weeks since the Newtown horror. If you Google "Newtown Massacre" as of January 4, you'll get 77 million hits. You can divide the commentary into roughly three categories. Most of the millions of words and verbiage concentrate on gun control, mental health, and the societal breakdown that appears to incubate this kind of depravity with increasing frequency. But contradictions are everywhere. There is more passion than thought, and you can't help but notice that ironies abound.

The liberal side of the debate sees Newtown as a watershed event. They believe their desire for stricter gun control and even disarmament of the general citizenry has been given the necessary boost needed to enshrine it into public policy.

This kind of government intrusion -- Governor Cuomo spoke of confiscation of weapons if need be -- flies in the face of liberal sensibilities that strenuously objects to stricter voter identification regulations and reporting undocumented aliens.

For their part, opponents of gun control are averse to the heavy hand of government when it involves gun possession, but they favor it when it comes to sealing the borders and preventing voter fraud.

It would appear that Americans want to be left alone, except when they don't want to be. But picking and choosing when is not what ensuring the domestic tranquility and promoting the general welfare is about. What we have is petulance substituting for governance.

Suggestions abound for making our society safer. Very few of these make much sense either. Max Fisher writing in the Atlantic magazine suggests looking to Japan as a model of a successfully disarmed country.

But the law and order that is emblematic of Japanese society hasn't immunized it from depravity any better. Gun control didn't prevent the Aum Shinrikyo cult from releasing Sarin gas in five of Tokyo's subway lines, killing thirteen and injuring six thousand people in 1995 and eight people in Matsumoto the previous year. Thirteen of the perpetrators are on death row.

Given today's sensibilities, would Americans accept death sentences meted out in this fashion? Only Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, while two co-conspirators received twelve-year sentences and one is serving a life sentence.

While Japan is a democracy today, the legacy of a draconian peace imposed by the Tokugawa shoguns four centuries ago still informs Japanese society. When I lived there the police would visit each year and inquire about my status and my reason for being in Japan. Americans on the other hand blanch at having to fill out a census form every ten years!

If Japanese police request your documentation and you don't have it with you, you'll be cooling your heels in a police station until your identity is ascertained. In America the Obama Justice Department took Arizona to the Supreme Court because they didn't believe local government has the right to ask someone's immigration status during a police stop.

Let's face it: Americans don't like to be told what to do. It's part of our DNA. Just look at our founding document. After you get past the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, the body of the document is a series of charges and complaints against King George III for his failure to allow us to do what we want. He prevented us from moving westward and limited naturalization of immigrants just to name two of our complaints.

This doesn't mean firearm possession shouldn't be regulated. But a serious policy discussion would require an acceptance of authority where de-authorization of it, on both the right and the left, has been a full-time avocation for many politicians and intellectuals for the past five decades.

We can begin the discussion by looking at Israel, which would make neither side of the Newtown debates happy. It is a vibrant democracy but by necessity it is also a garrison state. A large percentage of the population has received training during compulsory military service. However gun ownership is strictly regulated.

In order to receive a gun license you must be at least 27-years-old unless you've served in the military. You must be able to read and write in Hebrew. You can't have a criminal record. A physician must sign a health declaration, and you must waive medical confidentiality. There is a rigorous interview with the licensing bureau. The police must approve. You must have a justified reason for the license. You must undergo firearm training coordinated with the police department. Sale and exchange of your firearm must receive official approval. Renewal of the license must accompany a health declaration once again.

It all makes common sense, but could this kind of rigor ever pass muster in a country like ours, where privacy rights have been elevated to scripture?

This brings us to the discussions about mental health and societal breakdown. Twenty years ago Daniel Moynihan's seminal essay "Defining Deviancy Down" appeared in the American Scholar. Moynihan addressed our societal crack-up and the widespread acceptance of what was once considered deviant behavior as normal.

He vividly described the collapse of the mental health system. "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."

The belief that society was incapable of defining mental illness had taken hold. Movies like "King of Hearts" celebrated the inmates who took over the asylum. Vincent Canby summed it up in his 1967 review of the movie in The New York Times. He applauded the movie's premise "...that the certified insane of this world are a lot less lunatic than the madmen who persist in making lunatic war." Canby loved the movie.

Post-Newtown, psychiatric experts explicated the legal maze that makes institutionalizing someone all but impossible today, and though it's also clear that even a more functional mental health system would not have necessarily predicted Adam Lanza's homicidal orgy.

But the inability to define and treat deviant behavior, involuntarily if need be, increases the risks of sociopathic behavior erupting in our midst. The ongoing desire to normalize what used to be abnormal only adds to the confusion.

There is no better place to see this at work than in our schools. The Federal policy of including special needs students in mainstream classes and the desire to reduce self-contained special education classes for students with behavioral problems has created another consequential burden for our public education system.

A couple of real-life examples should suffice. When I was a dean at Jamaica High School a 16-year-old freshman became a disciplinary problem as soon as he entered the school. It turns out that he was a functional illiterate with an IEP (individual education plan). He had managed to "graduate" from middle school even though he had been absent for over 130 days in his last year. His record described him as a threat to students, staff, and himself.

Once the special education guidance councilor became aware of his IEP he attempted to get him evaluated and moved out of mainstream classes. The student told the councilor that if he were to be re-classified he would show him just the kind of special education student he could be.

A policeman who stood about 6' 3" once brought him into the dean's office after picking him up outside of school. He pulled me aside and said, "This is a scary kid." When he broke a student's jaw in the cafeteria for no apparent reason he was suspended. We never saw him again.

A colleague had a student who suffered from a Tourettes-like syndrome. In this case he would interrupt the lesson several times each period by telling the teacher to "go f---- herself." His IEP directed the teacher to reduce the interruptions by 50 percent. So the new normal was to have a student blurt this out to a teacher only four times each period!

In a case brought before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, the parents of a student known as "P" who suffered from Down Syndrome, hearing impairment, lack of bowel control, and severe behavioral problems, sued the Newington Board of Education in Connecticut, to allow their child to remain in the least restrictive environment -- a mainstream classroom. It took an appeals court ruling to allow the school board to do what any sensible community should have done without question.

In effect a case that should have been settled on the administrative level of the school district had to wind its way to the Court of Appeals before the judges said enough is enough.

How can a society tied up in these kinds of irrational knots be expected to identify and act when confronted with deviance and abnormality when it works to legitimize it at the same time?

Japan's peace and tranquility was preceded by an age of Gekokujo -- a century of civil warfare and social upheaval. It increasingly appears that the term can be applied to our era as well, the Age of Newtown.