I ran into Jesse Jackson here the other night and was tempted to ask him--really--if he had lost his mind. What had he been doing in Decatur, Ill., championing the case of six students who had been kicked out of high school after a brawl? But before I could pose my question, Jackson uttered the two words that ought to make any American stop and think: zero tolerance. Maybe it's the rest of us, not Jackson, who are out of our minds.

Jackson is on to something. Zero tolerance is everywhere, particularly in schools. If not a formal policy, it is a mind-set. In Arlington recently, two fifth-graders were charged with a felony after they allegedly put soap in their teacher's water bottle. At that, they got away cheap. In other parts of the country, they'd be held without bail--as was done to a 10-year-old in Colorado accused of incest. (He may have gotten inquisitive about his younger sister--hardly rape and not really incest.)

Zero tolerance too often amounts to zero thinking, the imposing of Draconian penalties after even the mildest of infractions. The justification is that things are going to hell in a handbasket. There is almost a bipartisan consensus about how bad a problem school violence has become.

George W. Bush mentioned school shootings in his recent "Meet the Press" interview with Tim Russert. "Listen, there's something wrong with a society where life is so devalued that people think they can walk into a school and blow people away," he observed. Bush, as it turned out, knew the cause of all this violence: abortion. This at once put to rest any doubt that he is not a methodical thinker.

The New Republic, hardly a conservative journal, agrees--not on abortion, mind you, but on school violence: It is "the greatest crisis in public education today," the magazine intoned in a recent editorial.

But a crisis it isn't. Politicians and the media may proclaim, but the numbers say otherwise. In fact, juvenile crime has been declining for the past four years and is now about where it was in 1987. This is true for all categories, including murder and weapons violations.

As for school shootings--even those Bush credits to liberal abortion laws--there were about 55 fatalities in the 1992-1993 school year and about half as many last year, the 12 student victims of Columbine included. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute put matters in perspective: The chances of a kid's getting shot in school are about the same as the chances of getting hit by lighting.

You are excused for not knowing any of this. A vast (mostly) right-wing conspiracy of pandering politicians and their journalistic fellow travelers continues to insist that your average school and your average maximum security prison have many of the same sort of people. Conservatives in particular say that abortion, pornography, divorce and idiotic exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum have contributed to a precipitous moral decay and--as day follows night--carnage in the classroom. The remedy? I'm glad you asked: A zero tolerance of distinctions among kids and increasingly between children and adults.

And so in state after state, 44 of them since 1992, laws have been amended so that children can be tried as adults in certain circumstances. In Pontiac, Mich., recently, Nathaniel Abraham was tried for a murder he committed when he was 11. He could have received a life sentence without the possibility of parole but was convicted instead of second-degree murder, which will mean a lesser--but still severe--sentence.

In many of these cases, the murderers are kids who should have been treated or institutionalized before they became violent. Kip Kinkel, who killed his parents and two of his schoolmates at the age of 15, said he had been hearing voices ordering him to kill since he was 12. He was sentenced to 112 years in prison with no chance of parole--a medieval approach to mental illness, what could be called zero tolerance of psychiatric knowledge.

Back to Jackson. Some of the kids at Decatur were no angels, but some of them, it turned out, were pretty good students. Yet they were all treated the same--initially just kicked out of school. They all deserved punishment, and Jackson, as sometimes happens, sounded silly playing down what they had done. But he was right about zero tolerance and how it obliterates individual differences and relieves adults of their responsibility to make wise, but difficult, distinctions. When it comes to children, the punishment has to do more than fit the crime. It has to fit the kid as well.