President Trump gets something right

  • President Donald Trump speaks to the media before boarding Air Force One for a trip to Kenosha, Wis., Sept. 1, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

Published: 9/15/2020 2:44:28 PM

During his visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, President Trump held a roundtable event which included two African Americans seated on the dais, both pastors for Jacob’s mother.

When a reporter asked these pastors if they believed police violence was a systemic issue, the president elected to respond for them, saying that he didn’t believe so, that the police were doing an “incredible job” and that, “I think you do have some bad apples.”

Putting aside the crassness of speaking for someone else (a pastor no less, someone not unexperienced in public speaking), and the continuing and mind-numbing use of hyperbole to describe literally everything, I was most impressed with the president’s use of the “bad apple” adage. In this regard, I believe President Trump is correct, however, for reasons other than what I believe the president meant.

According to Google, “a rotten apple quickly infects its neighbor” has been around in the English-speaking world since the early 14th century. Our own Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century said, “the rotten apple spoils his companion.” Had the president not been quite so lazy he would have realized the reason we are to beware of bad apples is not so much the loss of one apple, but the damage one bad apple does to its neighbors. A bad beanbag, for instance, is not wonderful, but at least it will not cause further damage to neighboring beanbags.

The officer who shot Mr. Blake in the back is indeed a bad apple, a spoiled apple; an individual who will, over time, spoil his partner(s), his group, and to some extent even the entire division he is attached to. Bad police officers, like bad apples, are so very, very horrible because of the damage they do themselves but even more importantly for the damage they do to everyone who works with them.

I would bet that most police officers start out as decent, hard-working, ethical individuals, trained not to panic in moments of stress. But there are always a few unscrupulous, vicious, racist, unethical people who get past the screening and are allowed to put on the blue uniform. These individuals generally fly below the radar of decent behavior in public. They are what they would term “politically correct.”

But let one of them be in a small cluster where he or she feels safe, then we hear the venting about this group, or that indignity, or another unfairness. We hear the jokes about their minority of choice. These side comments and sly innuendos, these disparagements and snide attacks, these racist jokes all subtly normalize despicable behavior if not challenged.

Often these comments are supposedly said in jest, but they sting just the same. If challenged, the purveyor of perversity will reply, “well, it’s a true fact, I heard it on the news” or “it was only a joke, you take everything so seriously” or some other efficient method to stifle rebuke. And the unsupported “everyone knows about …” followed by a knowing chuckle will work its magic, spoiling the commonsense knowledge of the audience.

If the offending officer is in a superior position or is a role model, the damage to the audience is that of a bad apple. The individuals closest to this officer are the first to get blemishes, soft spots, rot; those further away take longer but they too will eventually rot. As the rot spreads, heretofore “good” apples start to go bad and so on and so on.

Going back to Google, I would add one more quote that was “popularized by sermons during the 19th century, claiming ‘As one bad apple spoils the others, so you must show no quarter to the sin or sinners.’” Whether the quote is correct or not, it does encapsulate — in true 19th century form — the idea that a bad apple is a danger to everyone else and needs to be dealt with for their sake.

Therefore, I agree with my erstwhile president that the offending officer was a bad apple. But that cannot be the end of it. If that particular officer has been on the force for any period of time, I will bet he has negatively influenced others, they have become spoiled. If there is more than one bad apple on the force, if there has been a history in the police force of disparaging different groups in the community, then the rot is, in fact, systemic and not just specific.

President Trump’s acknowledgement that the police officer is a bad apple is not a reason to punish that individual and let that be it. It is, in fact, a call to review the attitudes, procedures and practices of the entire department to catch the rot before it goes further. This is probably not what the president meant, but it is the meaning of the adage he used.

Richard Tillberg is a resident of Whately.

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