Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blind Lady Justice and the Colour of Tears : Comments on the Madoff Affair

The financial difficulties faced by major newspapers has had some odd results. It is normal for financially strapped businesses to consolidate their operations into a smaller number of locations. It appears as though the financial section and the crime section have merged.

In one of my early jobs, I worked as an envelope stuffer and a manager for a travel agency. One of my coworkers was a man named Dennis, who had been released from prison the year before. Although his personal life remained complex, he was remaining within the bounds of the law. He had an extensive criminal history, from mugging to pickpocketing, from pimping to burglary. It was his good fortune to have been sentenced to two years in state prison for one of his less violent crimes. While in prison he became amply familiar with the criminality existing behind prison walls, from drugs to rape to gang fights. He was proud to have survived and devoid of any sort of remorse. He viewed prison and the streets as a combination obstacle course and school.

One type of crime he described was from his career as a pickpocket. He was skilled at his profession, removing valuables from his victims with amazing dexterity. I was once mugged on a train coming home by an after school wolf pack. In less than forty seconds, they managed to rip the pocket out of my pants with the wallet it contained. Looking at the event in the third person, I recognised a dexterity and skill in the whole operation. Dennis was in a class way above the high school wolf packs.

One day he was scoping out a subway car. He noticed a woman who was tired and staring at the subway advertisements. She had a purse with three compartments. Her wallet was in the side section, which was unzipped. Dennis made his way past her, as though he was getting off at the next stop. She did not even turn to glance as he gently brushed by her. With the most imperceptible touch, he had removed her wallet.

Because of traffic ahead, Dennis was exposed to the consequences of his crime. The woman was also getting off. As she stooped to collect her bags, she belatedly stopped to zip her purse. and blanched in horror as she noticed that her wallet was missing.

“Where is my wallet? Oh no!!! Where is my wallet? I had eleven hundred dollars in it. A month’s pay!! How can I pay the rent? How can I pay the mortgage? Tears streamed down her face. She pleaded with the faceless crowd to help her. Dennis listened impassively as the woman’s desperation grew. He was torn between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he was worried about getting caught. On the other hand, he was looking forward to pocketing eleven hundred dollars and junking the woman’s wallet.

As he got off the train, the doors sealed him from the piercing wails of the woman he had robbed.

“Be aware,” he said. “To be aware is to be alive.”

That was Dennis’s motto, his commandment and his guiding words in life. He intoned it with schoolmarmish sanctimony as he scolded his victims for violating his only commandment. He could have thanked them for providing him with a living , but that would have been taunting and sarcastic. Dennis never stopped to taunt. It would be unprofessional. That is how one gets caught. He scolded himself for dipping into the woman’s purse before the train pulled into the station. It was a lapse in professionalism. He made mental note for his next trip on the train not to make the same mistake.

Pickpockets do not rank very high in their ability to elicit indignation. Dennis showed me that type of crime in a new light. He did not enlighten me with his remorse, or his seeing the light of goodness. He was even honest enough not to have feigned a jailhouse conversion. He was not born again or reformed in any deeply moral sense. After making a dispassionate inventory of a life of crime versus a regular job, he found honest work to be far more rewarding. He also found married women, for whose weak spots he reached like an emotional pickpocket. As a young single man, I viewed with a mixture of admiration and revulsion his ability to discard broken hearts like so many wallets on a train platform.

There is a concept in criminal sentencing of victim impact. A judge can listen to victims speak of a criminal’s impact on their lives before he passes sentence. I do not know how a judge weigh such factors. Refracting indignation through the prism of a criminal code is an art that is foreign to me . As a layman, I visualise a scale in the hands of Lady Justice. On the scale are buckets of tears. A crime is measured not only by its brutality or premeditation but by the tears shed on its account.

When I look at Bernard Madoff, and other culprits in the world of finance from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, I see teardrops pouring like rain into the buckets in the hand of Lady Justice. In a sense, my judgment is a unit of liquid measure.

In my scheme of measure, Madoff and Dennis stand in cuffs as the tears shed on their account are weighed, as the buckets on the scale are emptied and filled again and again.

I benefited from my acquaintance with Dennis the pimp, the burglar, the pickpocket and strong arm thief. By listening to his criminal exploits, I was able to avoid being a victim. His admonition to “be aware” resonated with the potential to be put to use in different contexts. I have since met people who sought legitimate opportunities and openings for the light of human kindness to shine who set Dennis’s lonely commandment in a nobler context.

I hope that we will study the plague of white collar crime and general ineptitude that has hastened the descent of our financial system into its present morass. Part of a criminal’s restitution can and should be educating those they have wronged.

It is not only wealthy individuals who have been hit in the latest scandal. Educational institutions and charities are finding the extent to which they have been hurt in their ability to educate and assist their students and beneficiaries. Our view of right and wrong, good and evil has been proven to be an illusory dress code, a triumph of appearance over substance.

When I look at gangsters and street thugs, white collar criminals and scammers, I see a common denominator. I see the attitude that their prey is nothing more than a truckload of gold ore, meant only to be blasted in the furnace of their avarice until gold drips out.

The standards by which we assess human value have been shown to be an illusion. The very money by which we measure our worth is built upon dubious promises. This is a time to learn from our failures and to reappraise the premises upon which trust and worth are based. Our failures and our setbacks should be a textbook for our future. This is an age to be studied, a time to be learned from. We should do so with haste.

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