‘Gotcha!’

Driving down the road, you see the familiar, unpleasant sight of someone pulled over by the police. You do a double-take, though, upon noticing that it’s the police officer himself! Suddenly realizing that he was speeding, the officer decided to pull over and give himself a ticket.

Okay … that didn’t happen. But this did: Tim Glover works for the Haines City Police Department in Florida (about 40 miles south of Orlando), as a red-light-footage reviewer. Recently, he spotted a car that looked uncannily like his own. “I was hoping it wasn’t mine,” Glover commented, “but I walked out and confirmed it was mine here in the parking lot.” He had been on his way to lunch, and had not realized his infraction until seeing the footage on his computer some weeks later.

Although it would have been easy to let his mistake slide, Glover immediately notified his boss, who wrote him a ticket. “I’ve always been taught that if you’ve done something wrong, to take responsibility for what you’ve done and accept your punishment,” Glover said. Although he was fined and reprimanded, Glover was also praised by Police Chief Jay Hopwood for his honesty.

Now, contrast that with a statement made by Al Capone, 1920s Public Enemy #1, leader of one of the most infamous crime syndicates in history: “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.” Dale Carnegie, in his decades-long bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, highlights the Capone quote to demonstrate the human nature to assiduously avoid self-blame. Even vicious, hardened criminals such as Al Capone rationalize their activities and view themselves as essentially good.

In all likelihood, Capone was never shown a video of himself engaged in heinous crimes. Would he have owned up to his guilt had he seen such a video? Likely not. But it is relevant in contrasting the comical Capone quote with the honorable Glover conduct.

Was Glover’s red-light drive-through a completely innocent, momentary lapse of attention? Or is it possible that it was more of a deliberate, semi-conscious “turning a blind eye” to reality? We all try to follow traffic laws, but — besides those blessed with exceedingly robust consciences — many occasionally fall short. You’re in a rush. The light is green but still some distance away. You press the accelerator a bit. As you get close it turns orange, but you really don’t want to slam on the brakes. Somewhere inside, the voice of unadulterated reason berates, “You just burned a red! You really should not have done that; it’s illegal and it is dangerous!” But the discomfiting censure is conveniently overpowered by soothing self-reassurance: “I probably made it, and — given the circumstances — there was nothing particularly dangerous about it, and I really had no other choice at that point…”

Am I trying to downplay Glover’s heroic honesty? Definitely not. He deserves every bit of praise that Police Chief Hopwood lavished upon him. Nevertheless, unambiguous video footage can be awfully helpful in raising the volume of that little voice of honest reason. Although its installers may have an agenda, a video camera is the quintessence of an objective perspective, isn’t it? Something very hard to deny.

Chazal tell us that remaining cognizant of the fact that “there is a seeing eye and all of your deeds are recorded” can serve as a powerful force towards discouraging impropriety. But it’s not so easy to put that into practice, as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai cogently taught his talmidim on his deathbed when he blessed them to fear Hashem as much as they fear people. Responding to their incredulous inquiry — “Only that much?” — Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai declared, “Halevai!” Think about it, he explained to them: When a person is about to sin, what does he say to himself? “I have to make sure no one is watching!” Maybe that’s one of the reasons why there is room for the attribute of mercy to temper the attribute of judgment. And that is also likely why we find, elsewhere in Chazal, an exhortation to live life in a way that will make us proud of the eulogies that will be said at our funeral after we die.

Living life with impeccable moral honesty is no simple task. We need all the help we can get to do our best to live up to that mandate. And imagining — at least from time to time — that we are watching a video of our own lives or of the eulogies that will be said about us after we die can empower the voice of honest reason to become an ever greater force within us.