When an idea crosses an ocean, its content often changes. There could be no better illustration of this process than what has happened to the concept of zero tolerance after it passed from the United States to Britain. Recently, for example, I noticed an item in my local newspaper, headlined IT’S ZERO TOLERANCE: GPS [family doctors] PROTECTED FROM VIOLENCE.

Every doctor in the city must have breathed a sigh of relief when he read this: at last we  in the medical profession can expect protection from the increasing number of young patients who intimidate, threaten, and even attack doctors, especially if we do not immediately prescribe what the patient wants.

But what does zero tolerance in this context mean? That the police will be called, will arrive without delay, and will haul off the offending patients to the station, so that they might later be punished with the full rigor of the law—a couple of years in the slammer, say?

No, not at all. The relief of the doctors reading the item will prove short-lived. Zero tolerance of violent and aggressive patients in my city will mean only a special new clinic for such patients, complete with bars and unbreakable glass, where they will consult doctors in the presence of a security guard. Otherwise, everything will proceed as normal. There is no mention at all in the news item of legal action, let alone stern punishment.

One of the doctors who will run this new clinic is reported to have said that he has “experience of dealing with potentially aggressive situations.” These words demonstrate how deeply held now is the view that men are the automatic, unthinking product of their circumstances, who know not what they do. After all, it is not situations that are aggressive, but people.

The doctor went on, “Our approach will be to persuade the people we are treating that violence and aggression won’t get them anywhere.” But that is precisely the point: we have now created a society where not only is what people want often debased in itself, but everything in their experience has taught them that the way to obtain it is by aggression and violence. The fact that nothing serious happens to them even when they threaten doctors (a fact that I have seen illustrated many times in my own hospital) will only prove to them that aggression and violence do indeed pay.

What is most significant is that so utterly feeble a response could be considered in Britain as “zero tolerance.” The danger is that when this feeble response is shown not to have worked, as surely it will not, it will give zero tolerance a bad name. In Britain, then, zero tolerance is like Christianity in the opinion of G. K. Chesterton: it has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.


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