Zero tolerance is a policy imposed by legislators, and other policy makers, in answer to concerns expressed by the public, called up in part by them, and by media. It is presented as a response to rampant drug use and violence and the very real consequences they have, and in the eyes of its advocates has itself no unintended consequences.

In one realm, testing for the presence of drugs, what could be easier? New technology is so sensitive that the detection of the smallest trace of some banned substance, down beyond the billionth part, is routine. The residue of marijuana in an ash-tray is now enough to put one in jail, and with asset seizure laws, the end of legal consequences is not found with incarceration.

In sports, the use of this technology in the enforcement of anti-doping, has led to the detection of substances believed to be banned; the small amounts detectable, however, may not be the results of the consumption of the perceived banned substance at all. There are medical, and legal, controversies raging.

An observation often made, so much so that it is probably urban myth, is that every bill in circulation in the United States is contaminated with cocaine residue. Under zero tolerance is everyone who has American money in their possession guilty of drug possession?

I would say no, but then I would be exercising discretion, weighing individual circumstances, and making a commonsense determination.

But zero tolerance admits no such discretion. Examples cited in the write ups above, and the one that started me thinking--Do not take ammunition to school--deal with the issue of violence in schools, certainly troubling, but not all that recent, though raised in our minds relatively recently by the media and politicians.

Zero tolerance is the technologicalization, or even the mechanization of those officials on the line, whether willingly or not, to enforce the exact letter of policy--no tolerance of circumstances is permitted. Immediate expulsion policies, anti-doping policies, so-called sentencing guidelines, all have the effect of removing the local official from any part in judging the circumstances of the accused, whether student, athlete, or defendant.

There is nothing controversial about this, our emotions have been wiped up to the electoral benefit of some politicians, and the monetary benefit of the media. (All the more ironic, when many of the same politicians extol the virtues of local control.)

But think for a minute, this technology, whose model we wish people to emulate, also measures the presence of toxics in our food, water, air, the things around us we use everyday: pesticides, heavy metals, PCBs, cancer-causing chemicals of all kinds, lead, food additives, dyes, synthetic chemicals of all kinds, this is not an exhaustive list.

The effects of these toxics is not conjecture, or is it? Science, uncontained by subjective morality, may give us the clear vision, but the same science, in the pay of the very interests that produce these toxics, clouds our judgement, asks us to consider circumstances: the very essence of risk-benefit analysis.

If we took the same moral stance with respect to toxics as we do towards drugs and violence--its wrong and the consequences be damned--what would happen to industry, the economy, to jobs? What would be the hardship imposed upon people if there were no tolerances for their presence in the environment, these tolerances hard won, and ever subject to relaxation or removal? What are the hardships with them?

If we can create a science, call it big science, that benefits industry, can we not create a morality that benefits people?