Tranquillity first?

GOVERNMENT, says the opening phrase of the Massachusetts constitution, exists ``to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights and the blessings of life.'' A few years later, ``We the People of the United States'' echoed that thought in a Constitution that sought, among other aims, to ``insure domestic tranquility.''

This desire for freedom from physical fear lies at the heart not only of our governmental charters, but of our collective psyche as well. Naturally, everyone hopes to pass through life with the minimum of lumps. What the constitutions are talking about, though, is something more fundamental: the pervasive worry that danger lurks on every street and in every cranny of daily life.

This is something different from the fear that Roosevelt assured us was the only thing we had to fear. He meant a paralysis of the will; the constitutions are talking about physical terror. FDR was a little closer to the present mark when he included in his Four Freedoms ``Freedom from Fear.''

The nature of life, particularly modern life, permits no one an existence totally carefree. We tolerate much in the way of everyday danger, and adjust constantly to its presence. That is why you teach your children not to accept rides with strangers, and why you yourself never leave home without traveler's checks.

This acceptance, like the resilience of a rubber band, has its limits. The English historian J. F. C. Fuller has said that anarchy is the one condition a people will not tolerate for long.

As John Jay wrote to Washington during the ``state of fluctuation and uncertainty'' that immediately preceded adoption of the Constitution, those circumstances prepare men's minds ``for almost any change that may promise them quiet and security.'' The trade-off of due process for fear-free streets becomes almost irresistibly attractive.

Now a judge, particularly one sitting in a criminal-case session, can easily conclude that this country -- at least the urban portion of it -- has already attained Jay's ``state.'' The judge does not merely read about muggings, housebreaks, and street rapes. Perpetrators and victims form in daily parade to vivify the premonition of imminent social disaster.

When, for example, you have before you a teen-ager who admits breaking into 47 suburban homes during less than 12 months, and another who confesses to 33 more, you feel a strong inner suggestion that society is, if not cracking, at least coming seriously unglued.

Is this just a bit of judicial paranoia? I wonder. In his forthcoming ``Common Ground,'' J. Anthony Lukas chronicles the problems and occasional joys of three Boston families -- Irish, black, and Yankee -- during the decade of the school-desegregation crisis. The families' experiences are different, but identical in one ultimate conclusion: hopelessness.

The Yankee parents, young professionals dedicated to solving what they conceive to be Boston's problems, buy a house in the South End -- a sagging neighborhood on the ghetto's edge. They plunge into community activities, including a slightly self-conscious resistance to a court order that would move their son out of the neighborhood grade school. Not so long after their ``permanent'' move, the constant pressure of street muggings, burglaries, and physical threats forces them -- with great embarrassment -- to retreat back to the suburbs.

Given the circumstances, one could not reasonably criticize the family for moving protectively. Many others, however, of all races, just as frightened for self and children, cannot move. Obliged to stay, yet unwilling to surrender to rapine, they will ultimately press government -- including the courts -- to end the anarchy.

It is then that ``almost any change that may promise them quiet and security'' will most strongly appeal to people, and that tranquillity may seem a greater blessing of life than a fair and restrained administration of the state's power.

Hiller B. Zobel sits on the Massachusetts Superior Court.

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