Lately, we've seen a lot of thin-lipped, power-mouthed public "servants" growling about "zero tolerance." But what, in practice, does "zero tolerance" really mean?
Let's start with examples from the schools. where zero tolerance is becoming a way of life.
In the past year in America, children have been suspended from various schools for:
Bringing a squirt gun to school.
Making a drawing of a squirt gun in school. (The cartoon above refers to a real case.)
Being found in possession of a butter knife.
Having four Midol in a backpack to alleviate cramps.
Bringing a bottle of peppermint oil to school to flavor water with. The school said the oil was an "over-the-counter unregulated drug."
Bringing interesting rocks to school to share with the class as part of a geology lesson.
And, to take the butter knife thing a bit further, Amber Dauge, a tenth-grader in Charleston, South Carolina, was EXPELLED when she was caught using a butter knife to, well, spread butter on bread. Her explanation -- that the school's plastic knives broke because the butter was too hard -- was rejected as transparently self-serving, and she was expelled. Not suspended, expelled.
In Longmont, Colorado, a fifth-grader named Shannon Cosiet discovered that her mother had put a table knife in her backpack to cut an apple with. She went to the vice-principal to turn it in. She was expelled. Not praised for being honest, not reprimanded, not suspended. Expelled.
Let's leave the schools behind, as I'm very happy to have done in real life. Virtually once a week we read about some act of maniacal stupidity committed by the minimum-wage/maximum-power boys and girls of the TSA. For example:
A woman was recently thrown off a flight because she had bought a toy solder for her son, and it was holding a rifle. The soldier was four inches high, the rifle was less than in inch long, it was made of solid plastic, and it couldn't be removed from the soldier's shoulder. So even if the woman had wanted to use a three-quarters-of-an-inch-long, solid plastic rifle to menace the stewardess or stir her martini, she couldn't have.
Denied boarding. Zero tolerance.
A woman's cupcakes were confiscated because frosting qualifies as a "gel-like substance." (By the way, is there any "gel-like substance" that isn't actually a gel? Is this mind-numbing, humanity-stifling legalese really necessary?) Zero tolerance for cupcakes.
Several people--all of advanced age- have had their incontinence diapers searched. I personally do not want to know what was found
A woman traveling with her 91-year-old, wheelchair-bound mother, protested when her mother's applesauce, necessary for the administration of a medication, was confiscated. The woman was arrested, and she and her mother taken into custody. Zero tolerance.
Zero tolerance is a vile precept, not only because it results in actions that defy analysis, but also because it's based on the fundamental assumption that the people who have been assigned to enforce the rules--teachers, TSA agents, even cops--are all idiots. They're incapable of making a judgment call. Left to their own devices, this thinking goes, a school official might decide that it's just fine for a third-grader to possess a hypodermic, a bag of powder, and a bent spoon, On the other end of the spectrum, a TSA enforcer might decide that the Middle Eastern man in his middle-twenties with the C-4 strapped to his body has kind eyes and allow him on the plane.
Zero tolerance says: No investigation. No explanation. Guilty. Next.
Because their superiors have no faith in their intelligence and -- what was that term people used to use? Oh, right, common sense -- these public servants are deprived of the right to exercise judgment. So they ignore the evidence of their eyes and their intellect and their humanity, and press hard on someone's colostomy bag and/or urine receptacle, and the passenger, humiliated and stinking, is finally allowed to board the plane. Or not. Another blow for freedom and National Security.
What this implies is that the people we're entrusting to educate our kids and keep the country safe from terrorism are too dumb to know that you can't shoot someone with a tiny plastic rifle and that Midol and peppermint oil are not controlled substances.
Well, then, why don't we hire some people who aren't that dumb? (Last I heard, lots of people were unemployed.) Or -- here's a sweeping concept - once we've decided someone is qualified for a job, why not let him or her actually do it?
Zero tolerance, in the end, is Fascistic. It's the policy of a power structure that thinks the worst both of those it governs and those it empowers to exercise authority. The classic excuse for the executioners and torturers of Fascist regimes is "I was just following orders." Those were zero-tolerance orders, designed specifically to remove the enforcer's judgment or mercy from the equation. We need to get rid of it, just as we need to employ, in positions of authority, only people who are capable of making a judgment call.
Reduce brainless behavior. Do away with zero tolerance. Oh, and hire the capable.
Tim -- Sundays