SEPTEMBER 10, 1962
HYDE PARK, N.Y—Not long ago I received a letter from a middle-aged couple who, for reasons of health, had to move to a warmer climate. They chose a Southwestern state and, on the basis of advertisements they had read in the newspapers, bought a piece of land in the expectation that they would be able to raise food on it.
When they arrived at their newly-purchased site, they found that they were surrounded by desert. Perhaps someday, when water was brought in, this desert would bloom. But it would require many additional people to buy land before the syndicate promoting the project would be able to make good on its plans to bring water and other necessary utilities to the area.
The couple writing me were desperate. They had put all their savings into the venture, and now there was no choice but to move to the city where the man could find work to do, regardless of whether it met the requirements imposed by his health.
The danger exemplified by the plight of this couple has troubled me a good deal. Some of the Southwestern states have tried to set up safeguards against these wildcat advertisements, but prospective purchasers are generally unaware that they exist or can be consulted. I feel that perhaps our newspapers have an obligation to check such advertisements and to publish the sources from which information regarding the land can be obtained.
Failure to carry out one's responsibilities properly is not limited, however, to any single class or locality. A letter the other day reminded me of a relatively recent miscarriage of justice, so to speak, in New York City which was as disgraceful as anything that is happening in some of our Southern states. This was the mistreatment in the courts of a young rabbi who, after a series of misunderstandings and difficulties, was thrown into jail because he did not have quite enough cash with him to pay the fine imposed. Largely because of the publicity given to this high-handed procedure, checks are now accepted by the courts in payment of lesser fines.
I bring this up because it is the kind of avoidable error which can give a bad name to an entire city and its higher officials. Certainly New York's mayor and police commissioner would strongly disapprove of the procedure followed by the police and the courts in this case. Yet top officials cannot possibly know that subordinate agencies will fail to handle such matters properly. The real question is how we can bring about a sense of personal responsibility from top to bottom in an administration, so that each individual knows his actions are important and will reflect not on himself alone but on his whole organization and on his superiors.
As another example of this problem, I often hear complaints about the inadequate way traffic policemen often carry out their duties. During a parade, for instance, many people say they can get no information about where they can make the next crossing, or what routes they can take in order to avoid the parade.
Traffic direction in a big city is of course one of the most difficult and trying assignments, and I do not minimize the strain on a man who stands at a busy intersection where he must often deal with disagreeable people. It is also true that people will try to break the law and then to attempt bribery as a way to avoid justifiable punishment.
Nevertheless, those assigned to such duties should be specially trained in courtesy and helpfulness. If we can confront our citizens with a polite but incorruptible officer of the law, it will go a long way toward bringing about the respect American people should have for all law and its enforcement. Too many people are ready to flout our laws, and we cannot expect officials in positions high or low to do better than we do ourselves. If we are to hope for a world that lives under law and not under force, we had best begin at home to correct our own attitude as the first step toward the achievement of the world's desire for peace.