Sometimes, zero tolerance makes zero sense

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 7, 2004

There are days when I suspect that rules have triumphed over common sense.

Having rules is a price we pay for living in an organized society. But sometimes it seems as if walking around sense seems to have sat down.

An accumulation of events brings on this notion. Election Day helped to reinforce it.

Email newsletter signup

Ours is a small town. One of the poll workers was a person whom I see in church almost every Sunday. We have attended social events in each other’s homes.

Still, I couldn’t get my ballot until I produced a picture ID.

I didn’t take it personally; she was just following the rules. She said she’d have to ask her own husband for identification.

There’s a good reason for making certain that voters are who they say they are. But in this case the insistence that poll workers check a picture ID seemed to me to be another example of paying more attention to following the rules than to accomplishing what the rules were created for in the first place.

It has gotten to where I rarely carry a pocket knife anymore, even though I’ve always found one to be useful for such mundane tasks as opening an envelope, clipping an interesting item from the paper, or cutting a loose thread.

I can’t remember exactly when I got my first pocket knife – some time during grade school. Putting my knife in my pocket was part of my morning routine from then until a few years ago.

Now the small knife I’ve had for more than 20 years remains on top of the chest of drawers, with extra change and spare pens, unless I’m certain that I’m not going anyplace where carrying it would be considered suspicious. Going to an airport or a federal courthouse? A school?

Better to be safe than sorry.

Better safe than sorry is, of course, the reason we have so many rules.

Want to avoid a lawsuit? Make a rule and enforce it across the board, even it if doesn’t make sense. Ours is a litigious society that often rewards people for their own stupidity.

And if you have a rule, you don’t have to accept responsibility for making a judgment. “Sorry, I’d like to help, but there are rules.”

Take the case last week in West Jordan, Utah, where a 13-year-old student was suspended for 45 days for giving a cousin a cold pill – even though the medication had been prescribed for both of them.

In Jefferson County not long ago, a Clay-Chalkville High School student was suspended for a month and sent to an alternative school for taking a Motrin tablet for cramps. Still, she was luckier than a Bossier City, La., high school student who was expelled for a year for having Advil at school.

Sometimes zero tolerance makes zero sense.

(These absurdities are reminders of the warning labels plastered all over every imaginable product. No matter how absurd a warning label you can imagine, there probably is a real one that is even more absurd – such as the one on a fishing lure that says “harmful if swallowed.” Gee, why didn’t we all get electrocuted before they attached the label warning us not to use the electric hair dryer in the shower?)

It’s easy to get indignant about mindless rules that foreclose the application of common sense. I wonder, though, how many of us who chafe at such rules have had a hand in creating the same kinds of situations. Many of us, for example, have insisted on tough-on-crime sentencing laws that give judges little or no flexibility in making the punishment fit the crime.

Will Rogers observed a long time ago that “Common sense ain’t common.”

Think how much more rare it has gotten since his day.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at