Thursday, October 22, 2009

Zero Tolerance or Tolerance of Zero?

Lately, over the past 20 or 30 years there has been a dramatic increase in what are called "zero tolerance" policies and more recently laws. More often we hear or read of incidents where school children are suspended for bringing an ordinary table knife to school, or some other minor infraction that happens to be a "zero tolerance" policy.

"Zero Tolerance" is a peculiarly liberal response to a basic lack of enforcement of rules. Since enforcement based on subtleties is complicated, it seems much easier to make the rule "zero tolerance" to avoid having to actually study the context of the infraction and make a decision based on that context. I say it is 'liberal' in the sense that rarely does a conservative thinker feel the need to reduce rules and law to zero tolerance. True there are specific situations that zero tolerance works, but to apply it to increasingly specific areas of society is really making a targeted law that skirts the essence of the rule of law.

By having zero tolerance of any minute infraction more innocent than guilty are caught into the net. expanded far enough, society will have zero tolerance for anything, good or bad since what is good to one person can be argued as bad by another.

Smoking in public is one area where the zero tolerance is creeping in. 30 years ago, there were smoking and non-smoking sections of restaurants, today (in California) there is no smoking allowed at all in restaurants (bars are excluded), work places, malls.

The example, of the child bring an ordinary table knife to school and being suspended, I cited earlier has many copies. The aim was to reduce gang violence in public schools by making it a serious violation of school policy. To enforce the policy of zero tolerance, every child is searched before entering the school grounds (especially noted by metal detectors at numerous junior and senior high schools). As a result our schools resemble high security prisons rather than institutions of education.

Several years ago, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) had a zero tolerance policy for any thing with a blade (scissors, knives, fingernail clippers etc) and would immediately confiscate the item. I recall at one airport numerous nail clippers being confiscated. less than fifty feet away at the first in-terminal store I could see that nail clippers could be purchased. The exact same item that was being confiscated at the security checkpoint! It was truly ridiculous!

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