Magazine article Insight on the News

As Shakespeare Said ... We Are What We Speak

Magazine article Insight on the News

As Shakespeare Said ... We Are What We Speak

Article excerpt

The next time you hear a public official utter the phrase "zero tolerance," take it as certain that he or she is a rascal. (There's a word that deserves greater currency, combining the mischievous and the malicious.)

"Zero tolerance" is a favored term of duck-and-dodge government these days. The private sector as well finds it convenient as battalions of "victims" -- shrieking of sex, age or ethnic discrimination, to mention only the most popular forms -- batter at its door.

The phrase is, of course, an impossible criterion in any condition of human affairs except that which immediately precedes burial. To invoke "zero tolerance" in any significant policy matter is a technique to avoid actually confronting the issue. Its usage is unserious enough to qualify as mendacious.

The freshly installed defense secretary, William Cohen, scooted into this verbal alley at his first press conference.

A day or so before, media celebrities were aghast at video film of Marines "blood pinning" -- the rough ceremony in which newly qualified parachutists have the jump badge pounded into their chests by their mates. It smarts and draws blood, a macho rite of passage that has been common among airborne troops. (One TV lad, who apparently has never been far from home, gasped that it sure looked to him like "torture.")

There will be, Cohen huffed, "zero tolerance" for such hazing. He categorized the deed up there with sexual discrimination, the specter that causes generals to tremble and liberal politicians to climb the high peaks of indignation.

Well, did Cohen mean what he said? Of course not. He could not because, among other things, it is beyond his power to deliver on that pledge.

As boss of all bosses at the Pentagon, he can demand that commanders eliminate this kind of harsh tradition, and they will say "aye aye, sir," and firmly pass the word -- knowing that hazing cannot be extirpated any more than can, uh, dating among young male and female GIs.

But, sentient as we assume Cohen is, he surely is aware that it's absurd to assert "zero tolerance" as a genuine policy. "Zero defects," its first cousin, has faded, doubtless because even the dimmest bulb in a bureaucracy or widget factory can grasp how fatuous it sounds.

So why do Cohen and government officials all the way to the alderman in Ottumwa who discovered personal calls being made on office phones proclaim zero tolerance for such abuse? …

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