You might think “Zero Tolerance” is a playground issue — just a way for school administrators to deal with violent kids. If you did, you would be wrong.
ZT is a mindset of black-and-white rules applied to a gray world. “We tolerate no disobedience on the topic of [fill in the blank].” Thus, a “no guns” policy meant to keep firearms off school grounds (a laudable goal) gets applied to “squirt guns” (a silly result) — or even crude crayon drawings of guns (a ridiculous result).
Since these rules are “black and white,” that means the punishment is the same: suspension and expulsion. So in the name of keeping firearms away from schoolchildren, kids are being kicked out of school for drawing pictures — treated the same as a kid who brings a real loaded gun to class. Outrageous! The “punishment” should fit the “crime” — the actual crime.
And kids getting tossed out of school for silly, innocent, childish behavior happens again and again and again. For just some of the examples reported on in This is True, see my main Zero Tolerance essay.
And the concept is spreading outside the school setting and into the adult world, as the following story from True’s 26 August 2001 issue demonstrates:
Rule Of Law
Detrick Washington, 25, was at his business partner’s San Francisco, Calif., home office when two men forced their way in. The robbers got $3,000 from the safe, but figured there must be more and beat and cut their victims to get them to talk. “I’ll go and kill the kids and that girl if you don’t give me the rest of the money,” one of the robbers said. While they ransacked the home, Washington saw his chance: one robber put his gun down, and Washington grabbed it. When the robber lunged at him, Washington shot him. He then handed the gun to his partner to cover the other robber and went to call police. “Stay down! Don’t move! Don’t get up!” his friend told the second robber after Washington left the room. Then Washington heard, “He’s getting up, he’s getting up!” and a shot rang out — the second robber was killed too. “He took a chance. I believe we could call him a hero,” police Inspector Armand Gordon said. Washington “basically saved five people’s lives, including his own” by grabbing the gun. Police ruled the shooting justified, yet Washington is in jail: he is on parole from a previous drug conviction, and parole rules say parolees cannot “possess” a firearm. Because Washington grabbed the robber’s gun, he was in “possession” of the weapon and violated his parole. (San Francisco Chronicle) …And here you thought “zero tolerance” was only for school kids.
Update: the San Francisco Chronicle reported six days later: “At the time, agents said Washington could be held at San Francisco County Jail for six business days while they reviewed the case, meaning he would have been behind bars until [Wednesday]. Instead, they quietly let him go Friday, after The Chronicle reported he had been jailed.”
Yep, that’s a bit hard to calculate — the paper doesn’t actually say how long Mr. Washington was in jail for saving several lives. As near as I can tell, however, it was two days. No doubt he would have been there much longer if the media hadn’t highlighted his outrageous arrest by state parole officers.
Most people readily made the connection — why this was a “zero tolerance” story, rather than just an ordinary outrage. A reader letter — and my response — will help clarify it for you, from Tim in Pennsylvania:
Obviously, we’re not talking “zero tolerance;” we’re talking stupidity and narrow-mindedness. It is truly frightening to consider the number of small-minded, undereducated people who have power over us. Our schools, our judicial system, businesses, all are rife with these petty power-grabbers who either are incapable of thinking, or are scared to death of it. This is the type of person who made up, with such enthusiasm and abandon, the SS and the Gestapo; fortunately, this modern version is too stupid to organize. What we need, in “expose” articles such as this, are the names of the bugwitted individuals responsible. A little (direct) publicity might do wonders.
Tim, you just described Zero Tolerance exactly! Stupidity; narrow-mindedness; scared of thinking for themselves. That is the ZT mindset!
And unfortunately, they do organize — all to support each other that they’re “doing the right thing” even in the face of evidence that they’re causing more harm than good.
And as this story shows, we’re seeing it expand from school bureaucrats into larger society. ZT is idiocy. It’s a lack of judgement in favor of “following the rules” even when the rules don’t make any sense! Suspending a 6-year-old child under a ZT “anti-drug policy” when he gives candy to friends on the playground makes no sense (even if the teachers did initially think the candy was cough drops), and defending that action when they learned it wasn’t cough drops is an outrage. (Yes, that did happen: see my ZT essay!)
Similarly, arresting a parolee for “possessing” a gun that he wrestled away from a robber so he isn’t killed is ridiculous when investigators all agree that he had to do it to save many lives. It’s the exact same mindset, and if reasonable, thinking people don’t object strongly to it and demand a common sense approach replace it, ZT will continue to spread for the reasons I outlined long ago in my essay.
A Reader Letter on the Story shows that such thinking is not just a bureaucratic thing, and not just a U.S. thing, but rather something that’s creeping into everyday consciousness (although some readers think this is more a reflection of political differences between the U.S. and the U.K.). Jay in England writes:
I do not think that Detrick Washington’s arrest was entirely unjustified. I respect and admire him for being willing to kill to save the lives of those he cared for. For risking his own life to save lives. But at the end of the day, the robbers were killed. I am not in a position to say if one person’s life is more or less important than another’s, except for what we *feel* personally. That is, without a doubt we value the lives of those we care about higher than those of strangers, or in this case armed robbers and would-be murderers. However, I don’t think that it is possible for anybody to ever give up their right to life, no matter what they do. Put in the same position I would like to think that I would have done exactly what Washington did, but I also like to think that I would not expect to escape punishment. It is a difficult situation. Certainly Washington made the right decision — it was a true dilemma for him when both outcomes carried negative repercussions — but I still think that we can not leave killing unpunished. I do think that it was ridiculous Washington was jailed for parole violation, because he technically was ‘in posession’ of a gun, however I do think that killing robbers would also count as parole violation. No matter how much worse the alternative was — and it would surely be a greater crime to stand by and let innocent people die when it can be avoided — I do think that there needs to be *some form* of punishment. He saved many lives, and for this he should be rewarded — however I don’t think it should be ignored that in doing so he took a life. Under no circumstances do I believe we should ever just let it pass when someone takes a life. I know that wasn’t the point of the piece, but I felt the need to comment and hope I haven’t made myself sound stupid.
I don’t think Jay is stupid, but man do I think he is misguided!
Punishment is for people who do wrong, either by doing something they know they shouldn’t have been doing, or (to some lesser extent) by their own negligence.
These were robbers who chose to do wrong. They clearly would not have hesitated to kill their victims — just as they threatened. Washington just didn’t grab a gun and start shooting, he grabbed their gun and told them to stop. They didn’t stop: they tried to grab the gun back to continue their crime, so they were shot.
The only people who did something “wrong” here, in my opinion, were the robbers. They got their “punishment”; Washington deserves no punishment if in fact the situation went down as described (and, to make it clear, the police are satisfied it did happen that way). People who, as Jay said, “do the right thing” don’t deserve punishment!
Even after thinking about it more — and reading my reply to his letter — Jay didn’t change his mind. He replied:
You make a good point. I think we’ll agree to disagree on whether it is possible to give up your right to life unwillingly. Yes, Detrick Washington was more than justified in killing to protect himself and his family — this I do not dispute — but I do not think that there should be differences in murder. But I will not convince you of my case, and I doubt if I would admit it if you convinced me.
Huh? No matter what evidence you’re shown that your argument is wrong, you wouldn’t admit it if you changed your mind?! Admitting you’re wrong is the first step toward getting it right, Jay. No one is right all the time.
Several True readers had plenty to say to Jay in the Comments.
OK, let’s cut to the bottom line here: is this story really “about” whether or not a parolee was justified in killing a robber? No. To me, it’s about supposed professionals not using common sense, discretion and reason in doing their jobs, but rather officials with control over other people’s lives applying rote “rules” to situations that don’t require them; it is, at its heart, an example of silly schoolyard “zero tolerance” expanding into the “real world” — not a good trend.
None of us want kids taking guns to school. None of us want people robbing us at gunpoint. But neither do I want kids to be treated like criminals because they shared candy at school. I don’t want men who save innocent lives to be thrown in jail. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, giving up our rights to marginally increase our security means we deserve neither. (And, as I discussed in my ZT essay, ZT does not actually increase security!)
Would you want someone who saved your family from being murdered to be tossed in jail? I don’t. But if people are “punished” for “doing the right thing,” they’ll learn to walk away and do nothing.
We have — plenty of times — heard of people who “don’t want to get involved,” and that attitude is to the detriment of our society. I want people to “get involved” if they see me or my family being held at gunpoint! Don’t you?
Thus, if society starts pressuring us to move in that direction, common sense demands that we speak out against it. It’s self destructive. It’s uncivilized. It’s irrational. It is wrong.
When this story was featured on its 10-year anniversary, not a lot had changed when it comes to zero tolerance graduating from schools into the real world. But I heard back from Jay in England! He writes:
I don’t want to discuss the story again, thankfully, but I would like you to know that I wish to distance myself from the comments made by my 20-year-old self in 2001. I was an idiot. I really really wish I hadn’t read the whole thing again again this morning, including the comments.
While there are no doubt intelligent debates to be had somewhere, some other time, in a more suitable forum, about issues such as gun control and capital punishment and everything else, the story was not about these things. Nor did I did enter any intelligent comments — my comments were just plain stupid and failed to grasp the point.
I just wanted to tell you what I should have said at the time: what was I thinking, of course I was wrong, my comments were stupid. Although I would like people to distinguish between stupid comments and comments made by a stupid person. I appreciate that you were kind enough to see me as misguided.
As we’ve seen over the years, many people I argue with stomp away mad, unsubscribing in protest. A select few — the brave ones — stay on, continue to read, and (most importantly) start to think about their positions.
With this note, Jay has justified my faith in him. He proved the important difference between “stupid comments and comments made by a stupid person.” This is not to say I’m always right, of course; sometimes I’m the one to rethink things and admit, in public, I was wrong. (Example.)
Growth happens, and follow-up letters like this help me know it’s worth it to spend the energy to get people to think. Thanks, Jay!
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