Sunday, March 11, 2012

Zero Intelligence

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


  1. Your answer, were you God?

  2. The TSA are my favourite people. Another example along the lines of your toy soldier: a young woman was accosted by the TSA for having a six-shooter embossed on her leather handbag - presumably because it could be used to shoot the embossed people on others'handbags.

    I travelled around the States last year with Michael and an antique wooden Bushman hunting bow securely taped in a long cardboard box. The TSA at Minneapolis, Boston, Minneapolis again, and Los Angeles all allowed me to bring it on board. At Phoenix a power-hungry TSA officer said I could not bring it on board. Of course, my protestations as to the previous experiences met with a curt rebuke. I asked to see the relevant documentation for the refusal. Eventually the supervisor opened a large tome and pointed to the phrase "bows and arrows". I pointed out that I didn't have any arrows, and that the document should have read "bows, and arrows" for him to deny me boarding with the bow. I fear my grammar lesson did not go down well as I lost the argument. Fortunately the Delta personnel in both Phoenix and Minneapolis were wonderful, hand-carrying the box into the hold, and rescuing it from the hold in Minneapolis, before it was sent through the carousel crusher.

    The only zero tolerance I support is of the idiots of those who support zero tolerance!

  3. You are spot on as usual, Tim. Another interesting one is the "random" search and explosives check I usually receive. I have no particular difficulty with it as a security measure other than the pretense. I know enough about statistics to know that it's far from random. It correlates very well with being a foreigner. Welcome to the United States!

  4. Another example is, "Three strikes, you're out." Some poor starving fellow trying to turn his life around gets caught stealing food. Tt is his third strike. He goes to prison for a long time.

    Some things require human judgment. "Zero tolerance" and "three strikes, you're out" are those kinds of things.

  5. The country of rugged individualism no longer tolerates individuals and thinking for oneself. And there are those who would have raised a terrible fuss if the schools hadn't acted as they did. Zero intelligence indeed.

  6. Years ago, when I was counsel to a citizens' group responsible for overseeing (somewhat) the NYC correction system, I came across more zero tolerance practices than I care to remember. It was what I like to call the "One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest" mentality--absolute power by insulated minds breeds outright craziness over teeny tiny issues.

    One GP rated example had to do with smoking regulations. Inmates were allowed to smoke, but not filter tip cigarettes. When I asked why that was, the first answer I received was, "It's obvious."

    Having the power to push (admittedly fun), I received more answers--ranging from "the filters can be used to make explosives" (Hmmm, has TSA somehow missed that?) to "the inmates use the filters to jam the cell locks." And those were the best of the bunch of explanations.

    I honestly can't remember what ultimately came of that one, for there being so many other battles to fight I wouldn't be surprised if the "filter tip affair" fell between the the manner that allows most inane bureaucratic practices to go on and on and on.

  7. My wife is a radio reporter. One of the pieces of equipment she travels with is a foot-long microphone covered with a foam windscreen.

    I've spent decades dropping her off and picking her up at airports, but it wasn't until a couple of years ago that we traveled together on an occasion when she was bringing her gear along to cover a story.

    As we were in the line approaching the screening point, she told me there was a better than fifty-fity chance she'd get pulled out of line after her equipment bag went through the X-ray. A TSA guard would then open and inspect the bag, see there were no weapons, and we'd be free to go.

    However, she warned me, "Remember, it is a UNI-DIRECTIONAL mike. Do not utter the words 'Shotgun mike,' or we may miss our flight."

    I believe that (as regards the TSA and so, so much more about our politics and rhetoric and priorities), in future centuries, historians may well refer to the social/political developments our current era as The Stupiding Of America.


  8. Hi, all, and thanks for the comments.

    Liz, I'm not entirely sure I know what your response means, but one of the reasons I object to zero tolerance is that is makes little gods out of sometimes-very-limited people, and I'm uncomfortable with godlike powers being given to the relatively unlimited. As the Caesars didn't learn, although Lord Acton did, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Great TSA story, Stan -- at least your guy had the courtesy to open the regulation book. Most wouldn't have. One of the problems with zero tolerance is that those who act like fools in enforcing it are always defended as having (in the worst phrase of modern times) "behaved appropriately." Because it's zero tolerance, doncha see? Not 1 percent or 10 percent or reasonable explanation tolerance. Zero.

    Michael, I get the random checks once in a while, too, and at the risk of getting all sorts of people mad, I think they're way too random. They should be targeting people who meet a secret terrorist likelihood profile. I took a flight from NY to LA a few years back with a 72-year-old female television producer, a relatively famous, multiple Emmy winner whose clothing probably cost more than the airplane. Five Middle Eastern males had -- I swear to God -- prayed in the direction of Mecca in the departure lounge about ten minutes before boarding. Of all of us, TSA searched and scanned the producer. Okay, some will say, it's illegal to profile, but you know what? That's insane.

    Joe, couldn't agree more. I understand the emotional issue behind three strikes, but it's waayyy too Jean Valjean for me. We need judgment and discrimination (the good kind) in the way we administer justice. And educate our children.

    Lil, spot on. And I hold conservatives and liberals equally responsible for this, in different ways. We're turning into a country of sheep because it's safe to be a sheep. Until a wolf comes along.

    Jeffrey, amazing story. But we've all known for years how to make a bomb out of cigarette filters. You take three cigarette filters and three sticks of dynamite. Scotch-tape the filters to the dynamite. Light fuse.

  9. Good post. Zero tolerance is abominable. These poor children who are expelled, with no right to explain themselves, are probably too young to even understand the rules overall, and are caught in something they wouldn't intend to do at all. They're being kids. It sickens me to think of them being expelled. They all need to have an education.
    And the "three strikes" laws between your examples and others I've seen; it's abominable. There is awful prison overcrowding in California and jails should be for serious, violent crimes, not for taking a video as a holiday gift as the third strike (I've seen this!).
    Also, people being arrested while driving as they owe a debt and were turned in to police by collection agencies! So they are considered criminals and arrested. Zero tolerance here.
    And the TSA! I saw two elderly women on the news; they'd been strip-searched at airports by these agents. In their 80's!
    And people with pacemakers and defibulllators who can't get scanned (and others) who are then misunderstood and mistreated. Like no one thinks that a large X-ray scanner could harm someone with one of these devices.
    And if someone is concerned or disagrees with the scan for a health reason, the TSA mistreats them.
    Someone I know had to take off her hoop earrings at an airport and her 2-1/2 year old's sneakers were searched. Really!
    It does smack of autocracy and moving in an anti-civil liberties direction. Not good.