June 30, 2009
Public Enemies and Bernard Madoff
Posted by Christine Hurt

I've been reading Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs, a fascinating exploration of the most notorious bank robbers in the early 1930s (John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang, Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde), who were foiling state and federal lawmakers at every turn with their simultaneous crime sprees.  Interestingly, the book points out that the Depression did not create these bank robbers.  They weren't down and out people who had lost farms or jobs.  They had been criminals in the 20s, also.  But, the technology of the day had brought them getaway cars and machine guns, giving them a new ability to rob banks and disappear into the back roads of the Midwest.  The book also reveals the ineptitude of the newly created FBI and has spawned a movie starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger.

Thinking about Dillinger et al. has created an interesting backdrop to the Madoff sentencing.  We don't have a lot of bank robbers these days, and very few jail breaks.  The book depicts the relationship between the criminals and law-abiding folk as not that strained.  Dillinger in particular took many hostages to flee crime scenes, but then let them go, often with spending money.  He generally stole money from banks, which weren't very popular during the Depression, but not from individuals.  (He did seem to steal a lot of getaway cars, though.)  Some individuals saw his crimes as being against nameless banks or insurance companies, and not really having much to do with them.  Informants and witnesses were hard to find.  Of course, his crimes created a lot of danger for innocent bystanders and caused the death of several of them, and many law enforcement officers.  He also later teamed up with trigger-happy Baby Face Nelson, who didn't seem to have the marketing talent that Dillinger had.  Obviously, Dillinger's crimes were not bloodless financial crimes to be sure.  (Will Rogers famously criticized the FBI by saying that Dillinger might get lost in a crowd of innocent bystanders and then the FBI would accidentally shoot him.) 

Our public enemy of today is a very hated person, Bernard Madoff.  His financial crimes were bloodless, although we are having a debate in the comments to Jayne's "Extraordinary Evil" post about how life-ruining having one's life savings stolen, particularly late in life, can be.  One of Madoff's victims stated that he felt imprisoned because he lost the freedom that his life savings gave him.  Madoff seems to definitely be more reviled by middle America than Dillinger.  No Robin Hood myth could ever attach to Madoff.  He stole from the rich and the middle class to make himself richer, but Dillinger also kept his bounty.  Dillinger never got rich and definitely never led a life of luxury and leisure, like Madoff.  And Dillinger didn't look people in the eye, friends and confidants, and lie to them to get their money.  Perhaps these are the differences, or perhaps just differences in the times in which we live.

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