Observe only some of the recent scandals it has caused:
Going Too Far: The Case of the Nail Clipper
Student Expelled Over Bread Knife
Arkansas boy suspended for pointing chicken finger
In all the cases the story seems to be the same: the administration understands that it seems unfair, but their school policies (whether or not they explicitly say "zero tolerance") allow them no discretion in the punishment. Thus, we end up with suspensions for all sorts of things that would be hilarious if they were not true.
The flaw of zero-tolerance does not lie in some anamoly in its conception or flaw in its execution; it is the idea itself that is at fault. For what does it really mean? At its essence, it is the refusal of an authority to recognize different levels of punishment for different levels of infractions. In other words, zero-tolerance refuses to grant discretion to its executives. The enforcement becomes purely binary; either you broke the law and are punished for it fully, or you did not break it at all. There are no grey areas.
The point of this story is not just to illustrate the lunacy of zero-tolerance, as there is plenty of literature out there already doing that same thing. I cannot see how anybody could support such an inane and arbitrary policy after all the mishaps it has caused. Surely people have realized by now that the world is not made up of just black and white, good and evil, but that it is a complex place that requires critical thinking to come to decisions? Is it clear to everyone yet that there are no easy answers?
On October 7, 2001, President Bush went on live TV and addressed the nation regarding the terrorists attacks of September 11. Key among his points was an implicit message to other leaders of the world: "Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers, themselves."
Fast forward now to January 29, 2002. In his state of the Union address, President Bush labeled the nations of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea "the axis of evil". His determination for this was that these states were seeking weapons of mass destruction and would supply them to terrorists, presumably putting them firmly in the camp of pro-terrorism.
So what does this have to do with zero-tolerance? They are incarnations of the same idea to take a tough stance and make no distinctions. In effect, "Either you are with us, or you are against us." President Bush has taken the philosophy of zero-tolerance and applied it to foreign policy. This is a recipe for disaster.
Not suprisingly, this is not the first time the US has painted the world in such a binary fashion. The Cold War serves as a glaring example of what happens when you put the world into two camps and do whatever you can to stop the other side. The US supported military dictatorships, overthrew governments, funneled money to terrorists, and propped up illegitimate governments, all in the name of opposing Communism. What ends will the US go to in order to oppose terrorism? They have already allied with a military dictatorship in Pakistan. What's next?
As a final thought, here is an excerpt from a foreshadowing speech given by Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of (ironically enough) Pakistan:
When the West correctly and bravely determined in the late forties to confront and contain communism's expansion, morality took on a bipolar configuration. Whether it was the Marshall plan to economically rebuild Europe, or the creation of the NATO alliance to contain the Soviet Union, the world became a contest between "us" and "them." And the West strategically calculated, that any nations who would stand with the West against communism would be treated as friends and allies.
Political systems became irrelevant. Due process became irrelevant. Human rights became irrelevant. Democracy became irrelevant. The enemy of my enemy became my friend.
The Greek junta. The Marcos dictatorship. The generals in Argentina. The Zia-ul-Haq bloodbath against democracy in Pakistan. The enemies of my enemy became my friends. And the victims of our friends became irrelevant.
A democratically elected government in Pakistan was overthrown in a military coup. A democratically elected Prime Minister was murdered. A political party was decimated, tortured, sent into exile. The press was destroyed. Unions were banned. Student organizations were prohibited. The cause of women was sent back into another century. And the world was silent.