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Zero Tolerance

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Team Leader signaled the sniper to take up position. He hoped to God he wouldn’t have to use him. It was always worst with the young ones. High schools and middle schools were bad enough, and the elementary school last week was a horror story, so many wasted lives barely begun. Even that was nothing compared to today.

Sunnyville DayCare was surrounded. Patrol cars, two SWAT teams, and news vans from every major network ringed the rectangular brick building and fenced-in playground. Helicopters overhead sent aerial views to millions of televisions in homes across America. Officers locking arms kept the reporters at bay. A mother sobbed, “My baby!” Cameras whirled and microphones lunged.

Team Leader blocked it out, and his hunger, too. He was determined to end this without bloodshed, but knew it wasn’t up to him. Those kids in there had started this. Only they could end it peacefully. There’d been too many of these lately, almost one a week. It was an epidemic all right — the world was going to hell in a hurry.

He lifted the bullhorn. “Kids, listen up. This is the police.” He had to be careful not to provoke them. How they got their hands on dangerous contraband still wasn’t clear, but there they were locked inside with it. A mistake could lead them to use it — he’d be held responsible for any consequences to their health. Probably someone had left it unguarded, maybe a store clerk. More likely it was a careless parent.

This sort of thing didn’t use to happen. He remembered his own childhood — sure, sometimes kids talked back or broke curfew, but never this kind of open rebellion against adults and rules and the best-intentioned standards of a caring society. And at such a young age!

His voice through the bullhorn boomed. “Come out of there now and no one will get hurt.”

No answer. Team Leader couldn’t wait any longer. The risk was too great. He signaled, watched as the canister shattered a window of Sunnyville DayCare, in an instant thick white smoke billowing from the hole. Another signal, and four team members in gas masks swung from the roof through other windows, smashing glass and disappearing into the building and the smoke.


Seconds passed like minutes.

Then the front door swung open, heavy smoke blowing wild as the team members exited the building, children slung over their shoulders. There were four kids in all. No shots fired, no open wounds.

For a moment, Team Leader smiled. Tragedy had been averted. Smile gone as he got a closer look at the kids, chubby five-year-olds, crumbs on their shirts, glazed sticky fingers, sugar-high eyes darting. One girl still clutched the now-empty box of donuts, her knuckles white.

Team Leader shook his head. Four more victims. He consoled himself — you couldn’t save them all — and prepared for the worst.

The media descended.


“Zero Tolerance” was first published in Liberty magazine in 2005.

Scott Stein is editor of When Falls the Coliseum and author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. His short comedic fiction, book reviews, and essays have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxford University Press Humor Reader, The G.W. Review, Liberty, National Review,, Art Times, and Reason. He is a professor of English at Drexel University. Scott tweets @sstein. His author site is

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