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WILL SOCIETY DEMAND AN END TO DEPRAVITY?

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My daughter was reading the newspaper at the breakfast table in the next room.

"What?" she cried out suddenly.Then: "What the heck is going on, anyway?"

She's a gentle-spoken young woman. So I went in to see what the problem was.

"There's a story here where police say five boys, ages 19 to 13, killed another boy for his pickup truck."

She looked up from the paper in amazement.

"It's crazy," she said. "They're children! And there was another story . . ."

She searched through the stack.

"Here. This one. It's about a 15-year-old boy who drowned. The police say he was trying to grab hold of a boat, but another boy, who knew he couldn't swim, knocked his hands away."

She pushed the papers aside and looked up again.

"So what's going on?"

What's going on, I thought, without saying it, is that the world is on the way to becoming an unimaginable and possibly an uninhabitable place. There aren't any rules anymore. Fancy excuses and explanations there are plenty of. But no rules. Rules, like consequences, have gone out of style.

When I was a boy, growing up on a street of humble people and modest homes, you went to school or else the truant officer came and took you there by the ear.

Anymore, that would be a suicide mission. The truant officer, if there still is such a thing, would get wasted at the door.

If a rock you threw broke somebody's window, you waited through a 100-hour day for your father to come home from work, marching up the long hill from the bus stop, to have a conversation about it.

Do it twice, and you began remembering stories you'd heard about something called reform school.

Now a carload of teenage punks can spray the neighborhood with automatic-weapon fire, and right away you hear how the reason they acted up was that the fast-food restaurant was paying only minimum wage.

I didn't give my daughter this historical overview and doubt that she wanted it. All she was asking for, I think, was a word or two of reassurance.

But what could I tell her, in the face of all that's in the run of the news?

Skinheads in California, arrested in an alleged plot to provoke a race war. A missing college student, last seen in the company of a co-worker who turns out to be a paroled, violent rapist. People shot to death for a gold chain, a team jacket, a wrong look or, what the devil, just to prove the gun would fire.

So what is going on?

I haven't the first clue, and neither, I suspect, have many of the sociologists, penologists, phrenologists, apologists and humbugologists who pretend to explain why civility has evaporated and life is coming unglued.

But one begins to sense a mood rising for a return to rules, unyielding and nonnegotiable, and consequences, prompt and inescapable.

The alarm at what this society is becoming cuts across all economic and cultural and ethnic lines, shared by people who - though the details of their lives may be different - are driven by values that are very much the same.

Once aroused, those people, which is to say most of us, will be a powerful force for the restoration of public order. One has to believe that. Otherwise, there's no end to the decay.