Zero Tolerance
Urban Crossroads #59

Tolerance is a most cherished value. Every society must strive to attain it, and to protect it once it is attained. This especially applies to the mutual acceptance of differences in opinion and differences in lifestyles among various members of a community, among different communities, and among different societies.

Defining the borders of tolerance involves defining sets of values and actions that society accepts. It also involves defining practices that society rejects. Deciding on what to accept and what to reject is not always an easy task, and there often will be zones of disagreement. However, there are ways of thinking and there are actions that inflict unequivocal harm on society, collectively or individually. Clear-cut cases include acts of violence and destruction such as murder, assault, and vandalism. These are actions that no civilized society accepts. It is here that tolerance stops, and the concept of ‘zero tolerance’ takes effect.

Otherwise, if a given society, for one reason or another, in any way tolerates any of these actions, they will spread and become common-place. Enough human beings unfortunately do not necessarily act out of goodwill and concern for their fellow man (or woman). To ensure that they do, they regularly need to be reminded that they will be held accountable for their actions, and that if they inflict harm on others, they will have to pay a price. Consequently, many positive behavioral patterns only can be achieved through their codification into laws and regulations.

What about city living? When should the concept of zero tolerance be implemented there? The city brings total strangers into very close proximity to each other. This proximity means that many of our actions in the city will have a direct impact on the lives of others, and that we easily may cause inconvenience and even harm to others. Residents of the city ideally need to be as courteous, sensitive, and civilized with each other as possible.

Much of what we do in the city, we do in its buildings and spaces: in the places where we reside, work, study, shop, socialize, and relax. Much of what we do in the city also involves moving from one of those places to the other: by car, by public transportation, or on foot.

The list of what we should not inflict on our fellow citizens in the city is a long one. A good part of this list belongs to what we do as we move in the city. Vehicles that spit clouds of exhaust fumes into the air are inflicting harm on all of us. Those inside a vehicle who treat the street and a garbage dumpster as one, and throw whatever they do not need on the street, are inflicting harm on all of us. Those who park their cars in a no-parking area, thus blocking a whole lane of traffic along a street are inflicting harm on all of us. Drivers who treat streets as privately-owned racecourses for the Indi-500, or view a one-way street sign as an ornamental, but meaningless, plaque are inflicting direct (and in some cases lethal) harm on all of us.

In the same manner, those who leave yesterday’s chicken dinner in loosely-tied bags along the sidewalk are creating a health hazard and inflicting harm on all of us. Those who fix up or build an addition to their building and leave the debris on the street for time immemorial are inflicting harm on all of us. Those who play music from homes, restaurants, or banquet halls that may be heard in the adjacent administrative district of the city are inflicting harm on all of us.

Every single one of those actions unfortunately is widespread in Amman, and we are subjected to them on a daily basis. In all those cases, the reaction should be that of zero tolerance. The problem is that those who engage in such actions are confident that they will get away with it. There are those who believe they are above the law; there are those who believe they can get around the law; and there are those who believe there is a miniscule possibility that the law even will be applied. Under such circumstances, the laws that are meant to protect us and allow us to live together as civilized human beings sink into the realm of irrelevance. However, if people know they will pay a hefty fine for littering, polluting, disturbing the peace, or reckless driving, they will think twice before engaging in those activities.

It really does not take much more than that to establish an acceptable level of civility in the manner that the inhabitants of the city behave towards each other. In fact, once that is done, the vast majority of them will come to appreciate the value of such civility, but all still need to always know that deterrents that penalize assaults on this civility will be implemented regularly, consistently, and across the board.

Tolerance is a mark of civilized society. At the same time, a civilized society needs to adopt a clear policy of zero tolerance regarding the actions that threaten it and its values. It is time that the concept of zero tolerance towards violations of civilized daily behavior in the city is put into effect. This may be easier said than done, but if Amman is to be an agreeable and livable city, and not degenerate into a polluted, congested, dirty, and noisy metropolis where aggressive and rude behavior prevail, there really isn’t much of a choice.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 25, 2006