Isaac Newton formulated three laws of motion, No. 3 being: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If he were still around, he'd propose a fourth: For every action, there is an unequal and opposite overreaction.
Lately, Americans seem to be taking advice from Oscar Wilde, who said, "Moderation is a fatal thing." Stupidity can be met and defeated with sensible, proportionate measures. Or it can be met with even greater stupidity. Guess which is the preferred option these days.
Last week, a 17-year-old knucklehead exposed his idiocy to the world by venturing onto the field at a Philadelphia Phillies game and running around waving a towel. When a pursuing policeman got weary of the chase, he pulled out his Taser and shot the kid.
For that, the officer won praise from players, sportscasters and city police commissioner Charles Ramsey, who said the cop "acted appropriately. I support him 100 percent." The cop was in line with department policy, Ramsey said, because "he was attempting to make an arrest and the male was attempting to flee."
Really? Hitting a delinquent with a potentially fatal 50,000-volt burst of electricity even though he poses no physical danger to anyone and has zero chance of escaping? Maybe the commissioner should read the directions from the Taser manufacturer, which say the devices are meant to "incapacitate dangerous, combative or high-risk subjects."
The Police Executive Research Forum says they "should be used only on people 1) actively resisting or exhibiting active aggression or 2) at risk of harming themselves or others." A federal appeals court ruled that cops may not use Tasers unless "the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public."
Sure, shooting the kid with a Taser taught him a lesson and will undoubtedly deter others from following his example. But if that were the only consideration, riddling him with live ammo would have been even more effective. The rational response would have been to let him cavort until he ran out of gas, then take him away, leaving punishment to the courts.
That is not to say the courts are always rational. The other day, a 19-year-old woman showed up in a Lake County, Ill., courtroom gallery sporting a T-shirt that only a person of incompetent judgment would wear outside the house. "I have the (female sexual organ), so I make the rules," it announced.
That claim might be true if she were the only woman in possession of one. True or not, it was the wrong message to present to Judge Helen Rozenberg, who immediately held her in contempt and sentenced her to 48 hours in jail.
The judge could have ordered the offending party to leave. She could have insisted that she cover up. She could have delivered a stern lecture.
But the only remedy the magistrate could devise was to lock her up like a criminal. In Rozenberg's case, "judicial temperament" is a contradiction in terms.
Critics of the new Arizona immigration law likewise have decided to fight fire with napalm. Rather than merely object that the statute is shortsighted, counterproductive and vulnerable to abuse, they decided to pretend it's the greatest atrocity of the 21st century.
"When I heard about it, it reminded me of Nazi Germany," insisted Hispanic Federation President Lillian Rodriguez Lopez. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said Arizona was "reverting to German Nazi" methods. A New Jersey cartoonist drew Hitler with a mustache in the shape of Arizona.
The only value of statements like those is to reveal how little the speaker knows about life under the Fuehrer. Where are the concentration camps? Where is the mass slaughter? Who is the all-powerful dictator?
Arizona may have become an uncomfortable place for Latinos, legal or illegal, but it bears about as much resemblance to Nazi Germany as it does to Antarctica. If a law like this were the worst thing Hitler had ever done, nobody would remember him today.
In moments when we are presented with a sore provocation, the temptation is to respond with unrestrained fury. But wanton indulgence of anger usually ends up compounding foolishness with lunacy.
You can fight fire with fire. As a rule, though, it's better to use water.