Monday, November 1, 2010

The treason of images.

A few days ago, a little boy went back to school in Broward County after a year away. He came within a bureaucrat’s whisper of being expelled for good. After all, he brought a gun to school.

Except of course, he didn't bring a gun at all. He brought a toy. A clear plastic toy with a red plastic tip. Not even the most hoplophobic school board member could ever have mistaken it for a gun.  Not even the most nearsighted lunch lady could have been shaken down for extra Tater Tots. Not even the most vulnerable, sensitive little soul could have been traumatized by the boy brandishing his toy on the playground  -- which he didn’t, by the way. And if he had done, not even the most gung-ho school resource officer could have been led into a mistaken overreaction.

Try though you might, you cannot fashion a set of circumstances, however fanciful, under which the little boy or anyone around him was in more danger from this particular toy, than from a clear plastic bunny of equal mass. Instead, the potential for danger was entirely emotional and administrative, the boy was the only one at risk, and all the danger abided entirely in the minds of policymakers and bureaucrats.

It doesn’t begin or end in Broward County. Lest you think, or perhaps pray, that this was isolated idiocy, Google “toy gun suspension” for score upon disheartening score of stories as bad or worse. Toy guns are the least of it. If you are a child in the wrong school, then drawing a picture of a gun, making a gun out of your thumb and index finger, carrying a book about guns, wearing a t-shirt that depicts a gun – even in the hands of a Minuteman – all can get you sent home from school for the afternoon, for the semester, or for good. Don’t even ask about your permanent record.

This nonsense isn’t limited to guns. A Tylenol may have the same effect in some jurisdictions. So might a harsh word. Principals are no longer breaking up schoolyard tussles between little boys – they’re calling the law and the law is prosecuting. And a second grade kiss in the coatroom? Sexual harassment if the miscreants are lucky, some variety of assault if they are not.

School board types' reflexive justification for the stochastic and draconian effects of zero tolerance  is usually the ceaseless invocation of the policy itself, as if the policy were not of their own making, and susceptible to their own better impulses, should any such arise. (Discussing this so-called reasoning, the temptation to violate Godwin's Law ab initio is a strong one.) But if one can get proponents past such circularity, the most likely articulation will have something to do with "safety."

You know what makes people safer? Common sense makes people safer. Good judgments based on real facts make people safer. An understanding of what danger really looks like makes people safer. A willingness to forcefully confront true evil makes people safer. The thoughtful, restrained – even reluctant – application of a government’s power to its own free citizens certainly makes them safer.

But mindless, reflexive, self-justifying authoritarian excess? I’ve got no tolerance for that at all.


  1. Query whether your reference to Godwin's Law is not itself an affirmation of it. You may have found the elusive rhetorical snipe: a conundrum wrapped in a tautology inside a paradox.

  2. Yeah, it's crazy. A few years ago, my friend's daughter, age 10, got asked to withdraw from a Broward private school, Pine Crest, because she said, "I'm going to kill you," as hyperbole, to a group of other 10-year-olds who were picking on her. The mom of one of the bullies then called every other Broward private school and told them not to accept the girl because of the "death threat." These schools say they're taking a zero tolerance approach to bullying, but it's really just one more way to blame the victim.