Wednesday, March 11th, 2009
It’s safe to say that Bernie Madoff is the most hated man in America today. He deserves every bit of the scorn heaped upon him by the public, and not an ounce of sympathy.
But I’m wondering how many people reading this know the name Terry J. Sedlacek? What about Michael McLenden or Mazeltov Borukhova?
In case you’re stumped, Sedlacek this week walked into the First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., and gunned down its minister, Rev. Fred Winters, with the first shot tearing through his Bible, according to police. Worshipers stopped him before he was able to shoot anyone else. A couple of days later, McLendon gunned down 10 people in a spree across three Alabama towns. Several of the victims are believed to have been members of his family, including his grandparents, aunt and uncle. The others were random people he encountered at a gas station, a store and neighboring homes.
And two days before Madoff was expected to plead guilty to a $65 billion ponzi scheme, Borukhova was convicted of paying a relative to gun down her estranged husband in front of her daughter, leaving a six-year-old girl with no parents and an uncertain future marred by warring family members. The hit man’s name was Mikhail Mallayev.
Chances are, if you’ve heard of any of these incidents it was in the small segments of the news that weren’t devoted to the Madoff scandal, which has been dominating the media.
Last night was an exception, when CNN’s Larry King Live, guest-hosted by Joy Behar, devoted a full hour to domestic violence. That’s in the news because a pop-singer, Rihanna, was allegedly beaten up by her boyfriend, rap star Chris Brown. You’ve probably heard about Brown because he and Rihanna are celebrities. So Brown has come in for some late-night monologue scorn, but the legal proceedings against him will likely continue to be news nuggets, rather than an entree. A shame, because domestic abuser stories have a tendency to graduate to murder stories (OJ Simpson, Joel Steinberg).
A man is believed to have died as a direct result of the Madoff scandal, a French investment broker who cut his wrists, ostensibly because his dealings with Madoff cost his company $1.5 billion. Others may, God forbid, yet kill themselves or die as a result of the financial stress Madoff caused. Many others will suffer serious setbacks in their standard of living, and charitable groups will have to cut back important work because of him.
But should I really hate Madoff more than the man who shot a preacher in cold blood in a house of God? More than the mother who hatched a long, cruel plot to eliminate her husband and deliberately traumatize her child, never contemplating the evil or the folly of it?
I know: The media focus on Madoff is because he has left such a wide-scale path of destruction at a time when Americans are terrified of financial ruin. But has Madoff caused more economic harm than Angelo Mozilo?
Another name you don’t know? He’s on Time Magazine’s recent list of 25 People To Blame for the Financial Crisis, which includes the last two American presidents, former fed chairman Alan Greenspan, former Senate Banking Committee chairman Phil Gramm, you the consumer and yes, Madoff. (Time online readers voted Gramm most responsible.)
Mozilo founded Countrywide, a lending company that wholly embraced the art of the irresponsible mortgage loan that led to the huge inflation of a housing market built on wobbly knees and worthless credit. Countrywide eventually tanked and 11 attorneys general filed charges of predatory lending but that didn’t stop Mozilo from getting a golden parachute. He and his cohorts may have stuck it to not only millions of Americans but our kids and grandkids.
So why is Madoff more notorious than a serial killer? Because as much as we profess to hate it, greed has been romanticized it in our culture. From J.R. Ewing to Gordon Gecko of “Wall Street” and Donald Trump in real life, we hate the greedy villain while at the same time part of us fantasizes about indulging that narcissistic side of ourselves and getting away with it. We don’t loathe Madoff as much as we are fascinated by him and the pathological selfishness we have been properly programmed against.
Meanwhile, violence, particularly gun violence, causes far more harm and despair in this country than swindling, and yet we never remember the names of victims or perpetrators, and scarcely hear about the legal proceedings in their wake, or the debates in Congress about what should be done about it.
Does anyone remember the name Seung-Hui Cho? He’s the mentally ill undergrad who carried out the deadliest gun massacre in American history at Virginia Tech in 2007, killing 32. Only 9/11 and Oklahoma City killed more people. His infamy was short-lived.
And how about the legal killers in the corporate offices of any tobacco company, where executives and trustees bear responsibility for untold widespread pain, suffering and loss around the world for creating and marketing a lethal, legal product. Yet we neither know their names, nor pay much attention to their enablers in Congress.
Shoot people in the head or poison them and you’ll be quickly forgotten. But pick their pockets or loot their bank account and you’ll be despised forever.
Again, waste no sympathy on Bernie Madoff. But as he heads off to spend the rest of his life in jail, let’s ratchet up our collective outrage and spare some attention for some of the other villains and parasites among us, whose names fall so quickly off our radar, if they ever appear there at all.