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Oct. 12 2009 - 6:22 am | 100 views | 4 recommendations | 12 comments

America’s insane culture of fear from ‘Zero tolerance’ to Iran

Criminal mastermind, Zachary Christie, plots (photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times)

Criminal mastermind, Zachary Christie, plots (photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times)

NEWARK, Del. — Finding character witnesses when you are 6 years old is not easy. But there was Zachary Christie last week at a school disciplinary committee hearing with his karate instructor and his mother’s fiancé by his side to vouch for him.

Zachary’s offense? Taking a Cub Scout utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school. He was so excited about joining the Scouts that he wanted to use it at lunch. School officials concluded that he had violated their zero-tolerance policy on weapons, and Zachary now faces 45 days in the district’s reform school.

via It’s a Fork, It’s a Spoon, It’s a … Weapon? – NYTimes.com

When great tragedy happens in this country (say, planes flying into towers or two young men shooting up their high school,) Americans typically react in the following fashion:

  1. Freak the fuck out
  2. Believe whatever the loudest politician tells them
  3. Assign blame to a convenient, but usually incorrect target
  4. Participate in a reactive, hyper-totalitarian government policy
  5. Repeat at next tragedy

The list applies to the post-9/11 hysteria, but it also applies to post-Columbine America. “Zero-tolerance” policy arose from the string of shooting sprees in American high schools. As usual, schools did not thoughtfully analyze what kind of school environment (complete with hierarchical sects and rampant bullying) is inspiring such horrific shootings. Rather, schools followed steps 1 through 5, and opted for a hyper-totalitarian state within a state where children are all treated as suspects, including little Zachary Christie.

Really, Delaware? The six-year-old is going to shank someone with his Swiss Army knife? Such overzealous, reactionary policies distract from the very real problems in schools: low test scores, budget cuts, bullying, and so on.

In Going Postal, author Mark Ames looks at the phenomenon of school and workplace shootings in America, but rather than assigning blame to obvious (and incorrect) targets like Marilyn Manson, Ames digs deeper. He proposes that modern workplace and school violence emerged soon after Reaganomics began in the 1980s when the wealth divide widened, and Reagan did everything in his power to support his friends, the CEOs of corporations, while screwing the workers. The result is a corporate culture where Americans work harder for longer hours for less. They have no job security, are buried in debt, and occasionally one of them snaps and shoots their co-workers.

Ames argues — quite convincingly — that schoolyard and office massacres are modern-day slave rebellions. The overly oppressive and exploitative nature of hyper-Capitalism, the neutering of unions, and the overall degradation of employees, neighborhoods, communities, and society have resulted in a culture of fear and violence. While Bowling For Columbine blamed the guns, Ames blames the culture, which includes reactionary policies like “Zero tolerance” that end up hurting innocents like Zachary while the real causes of our sick society go untreated.

Even if one doesn’t buy the “Blame Reagan” theory, Ames’s solution of treating the sickness, and not just the symptoms, is compelling enough to warrant some kind of implementation. The opposite approach, which is the current “solution” of treating workers and students like suspects, is an excellent way to breed more paranoia, fear, and violence. If kids weren’t ready to snap before, a day of bag inspections, metal detector, and locker searches guarantees they’ll at least hate their schools if not harbor fantasies of putting down their oppressors.

Furthermore, the problem goes deeper than the workplaces and schools. The culture itself is sick, which is why America has a military budget that is almost as much as the rest of the world’s defense spending combined, and is over nine times larger than the military budget of China, and yet Americans feel more afraid, and more paranoid, than ever. Everyone is against us, we’re told. Everyone hates our freedom, and our amazing culture. China wants to overtake us. The entire Middle East wants us dead. Europeans laugh at us, and think we’re stupid. Emperor Penguins are plotting something. Canada is about to attack.

And then there’s Iran. Don’t even get us started on Iran.

Until Americans decide to break this addiction to “The List,” this cycle of irrationality will continue into the foreseeable future. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as though Americans or their politicians remember the catastrophic mistakes that led to the invasion of Iraq because they’re repeating the exact same behavior with Iran. Let’s consult “The List.” Are American’s freaking out? Check. Do they believe what the loudest politicians tell them (namely that Iran is an imminent threat to the US)? Check. Are they participating in a reactive hyper-totalitarian government policy? According to the Pew Research Center, a strong majority – 61% – of Americans say that it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action. Check.

It appears as though Americans are one trumped-up confrontation away from supporting a full-scale attack on a country with a population of 65 million people (more than two thirds of the population are under 30-years-old). Scary stuff.

Rather than looking closely at their country’s imperialist, bullying behavior, Americans are quick to blame Iranians for pursuing nuclear technology. But why shouldn’t they? Iran needs power, and concerning defense, how else is a nation to react when a psychotic western empire invaded its neighboring country six years ago? By laying down their weapons, or by ratcheting up their defenses?

Iranian leaders would have to be positively suicidal to ever, ever nuke Israel or any other country, since the US would vaporize them, but that reality never comes up. Another topic that never seems to come up is the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons. Lots of them. Although no official statistics exist, it has been estimated that Israel possesses between 60 to 400 thermonuclear weapons. So Iran has hostile enemies all over the place. If it was any other country, the United States would probably applaud them for defending their borders.

Alas, Iran is on the “Axis of Evil,” and so we pretend that Israel has no nuclear weapons (purchased with US taxpayer money,) and that Iran has no right to protect its citizens. As a result, the options of diplomacy and containment are treated as sweet, idealistic notions, but the chant of “bomb, bomb, bomb” forever drowns out rational discourse.

Zachary Christie should not be sent to reform school. His parents should give him a strong talking to about how knives are not toys. “Zero tolerance” is a stupid idea whether we’re dealing with a little boy or a nation of 65 million people. Showing tolerance is a good thing especially when dealing with children, who frequently mess up and need to be given second chances. Schools are not boot camps, and children need to be shown compassion and love, or they will never offer their fellow citizens similar kindness when they develop into fully formed humans. If you show children nothing but cruelty, and intolerance, then they repeat that behavior and grow up to become Republicans.

Similarly (although on a macro scale,) America should not bomb Iran. Diplomacy should be given preferential treatment, and America should stop policing the world. Everyone needs to calm down because, thus far, freaking out and bombing the planet have not yet brought us peace. Let’s give rational debate and self-examination a chance.


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  1. collapse expand

    Very interesting comparison…
    I like it!

  2. collapse expand

    How sad that a little boy’s genuine and innocent excitement results in his severe punishment. Of such insanity is a hatred of authority inculcated. For a country that loves to rabbit on about independence and freedom, there’s a persistent kind of American groupthink that leaves many other nations snickering.

    By the way, Canada will never attack. Today, celebrating their Thanksgiving, they’re thanking God they’re not American and, if they stab themselves carving the turkey, relishing free ER treatment.

  3. collapse expand

    Excellent work Allison. I just heard a podcast on Electric Politics by Professor Richard Wilkinson, who has done very interesting and ambitious research into the relationship between income/wealth inequality and various social ills, and surprise – the nations with the greatest equality have the lowest incidence of almost all social problems. His web site is http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk and he has a new book out on the topic that will be available here in December.

  4. collapse expand

    Absolutely. People have no idea what they’re doing when dealing with schools, and issues with the home life are sure to rub off in other places. Good article.

  5. collapse expand

    Great column. Keep telling the truth… One day it will set us free.. hopefully sooner rather than later.. Multi Trillion dollar “defense” budgets, mostly against us, the people who pay the price in lives and money. The uninformed and intentionally misinformed Amerikans, control the destiny of the world unless we can wake them up.. The Land of the free and home of the brave, worrying about a 6 yr old with something sharp.. My, how far we’ve gone from “poking someone’s eye out” to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Thanks for what you do. Dropp

  6. collapse expand

    Allison, do you remember how your school reacted to Columbine? I was a high school freshman at the time. If I recall correctly, we doubled down on security guards, installed a creepy camera system, hugely clamped down on the visitors policy, and did nothing to avoid the giant clusterfuck of congestion that occurred when school started and began, which made us all sitting ducks for a total of at least an hour every day.

  7. collapse expand

    Excellent writing, but just one small point. In Bowling for Columbine Moore really goes more after culture than guns.

  8. collapse expand

    Wonderful article! You have just gained another follower. An accepted adage in the recovery community is ” Don’t hate the alcoholic/addict, hate the disease.” Treating the symptoms of any problem without addressing the core conditions is probably a doomed cause. As with any dis-ease, the symptoms will attenuate and eventually disappear as recovery progresses.

  9. collapse expand

    I find it unbelievable that the US would even contemplate attacking Iran after Afghanistan and Iraq. The Americans have lost over 4500 in Iraq and 800 in Afghanistan and maybe a a million dead Iraqi civilians and Afghanis. Now the US or Israel wants to bomb Iran who has no nuke weapons and is being monitored by the IAEA (UN) Now 60 percent of Americans want to attack Iran who is mostly under 30 and hates their present theocracy. I have come to a conclusion long ago Americans have no clue about the world and Israel calls the shots. A great blog but the fact that your opinion is a minority even though right shows you how screwed America really is. Iran maybe the most sophisticated country after Turkey in the region and the most educated. Israel is the real warmongers.

  10. collapse expand

    The really incredible thing it was the US that gave Iran its first nuke reactor and Iraq and Hussein most of its weapons. Got to love the hypcrisy and double standards.

  11. collapse expand

    Thanks for expressing so well what I have been feeling for a while now. And Mr. Jilani is right, Moore did address culture in “Bowling for Columbine”. Also, Lt. Col Dave Grossman’s “On Killing” very convincingly explores how our media effectively desensitize our youth and even train them to kill. In his second book “On Combat”, Grossman mentions how video games are such good trainers for shooting that instructors at police academies are increasingly seeing recruits who have never fired real guns shooting like pros. When you have unstable individuals with the same training they you have school massacres. The person is the weapon, everything else is just a tool.

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