Special Treatment and Taking Care of “Our Own”

Special Treatment and Taking Care of “Our Own”

As the New Jersey political stew continues to simmer over contradictions in stories about alleged political paybacks in Super Storm Sandy relief funding,  traffic jams, and who knew what when, my mind has wandered back to my personal contacts with the Garden State.

There was a wonderful little visit to a college friend, Mary Beth, in Boundbrook back in 1977. Her father secured a limo and driver for us and another friend from Kalamazoo College, Barb, and the three of us made a day of it in the Big Apple (talk about an ego-boosting experience for a nerdy kid from the ‘burbs!)

There have been two adventures in winter driving in New Jersey. The first was through whiteout conditions. This time, I was the driver, with three young ladies and very different circumstances. I had to get to Syracuse to defend my doctoral dissertation the next morning. When Newark’s airport shut down, I rented the car and invited the three Syracuse co-eds (who I had just met) to come along if they would promise to talk to me so that I wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel. One of them, thankfully, kept that commitment, while the other two lit up what must have been medicinal smokes and drifted off to oblivion.

The other involved chauffeuring a crew of staff and students from the University of Tampa through snow, sleet and slush on the way to an admissions program. I was nominated for the job because I was the only experienced winter driver in the group.

There are jug handles in New Jersey, I know, and a hiking trail that witnessed the first date of my younger brother and the woman who would become his wife (a date Carol and I facilitated . . . with no small amount of fear and trepidation about playing matchmaker for a sibling).

And then there was my student whose dad was in law enforcement . . . a New Jersey state trooper, I think.

We were talking in class about ethics and the question of special treatment. The student pulled his father’s business card out of his wallet and explained how he would hand over his driver’s license with his dad’s card underneath if he was pulled over (which he had been on more than one occasion). The officer would step away for a moment, then return the license and keep the business card. Some days later, his dad would get an envelope in the mail with the business card and the officer’s name and badge number on the back. No fines, no tickets, no points. Just a system of affirming to each other that the members of the thin blue line had each other’s backs . . . and that their friends and family were “protected.”

Closer to home, we’ve had the fascinating and credulity-testing story of the Florida state trooper who gave state legislators $10 fines for sometimes mythical problems with their proof of insurance. Of course, what these legislators actually had earned were fines quite a bit larger for going fast enough to lose their safe-driver discounts. The officer was fired, then reinstated when a judge ruled that FHP’s claim that this trooper’s actions constituted aberrant behavior inconsistent with department practice was itself much too inconsistent with the evidence presented to be believed.

I suspect that it is impossible for us to treat every human being exactly the same as every other similarly-situated human being who comes our way. A thousand and one distinctive factors may have their subconscious influence on our reactions and our actions. Those with a particular duty to judge fairly and impartially must struggle to bring these influences to consciousness lest their judgments reflect, not the evidence, but their preferences.

Our personal desire to care for our own is, in its way, most commendable. But when we hold the power of public reward and punishment in our hands, using that power to care for our own raises serious ethical concerns.

Better, however, would be for us to view all the residents, business owners, and other stakeholders of our cities as “our own.” When everyone is favored with our best efforts and our commitment to their best interests, our cities will be better places.