Mark Madoff hung himself because the shame was too much to bear. His father‘s actions had made the family name a stigma. The disgrace, the ignominy, and the loss of reputation were so painful that he could not live with it.
Compare the Madoff family shame with that of the family of John Gotti.
There you will find far less, if any, shame. Those who bear the name of one of the most powerful mob bosses of our time do not feel shamed by John Gotti’s actions. Nor does the general public confer on Gotti the same opprobrium that it assigns to Madoff.
Some family members have tried to use the name as a means to gain celebrity, while others have just gone on with their lives.
How do we explain the strange way the public hands out shame?
Bernard Madoff defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars. He ruined careers and lives. For his crimes he will spend the rest of his life in a prison in North Carolina. There he is permitted to socialize with the prison population.
John Gotti took part in a multitude of criminal activities, from extortion to loan sharking to hijacking to gambling to murder. For his pains he was lionized by the New York media and dubbed the Dapper Don.
When Gotti went to prison he was mostly confined to his cell. The government was so afraid that he would continue to run the Gambino crime family from behind bars that they interdicted nearly all human contact. In jail John Gotti ate his meals alone in his cell.
One might reasonably say that John Gotti was a serial killer. Yet, when he was convicted, the masses did not breathe a sigh of relief.
They were not being unreasonable, either. After all, the people Gotti killed or had killed were his fellow mobsters. Up to and including, Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino crime family, a man who had blood on his own hands.
No ululating crowds gathered to mourn the death of Paul Castellano.
The Federal government saw things differently. Obviously, it could not countenance vigilante justice. More importantly, the romance of organized crime was lost on government agents.
To them Gotti and organized crime were parasitic elements in society, sucking the lifeblood from legitimate businesses, exploiting the weakness of the citizenry.
To the citizens, the mob offered services that society had declared to be illegal. The people who availed themselves of what the mob was offering must at some level to have felt like co-conspirators.
In much the same way that the root cause of the gang violence perpetrated by drug lords in Mexico should be traced back to the insatiable American demand for illegal drugs.
If you spend your time indulging your habit for these toxic substances you are less likely to feel especially outraged at what the gangs do to bring you your fix.
In America, the mob has always tended to kill its own. If you were doing business with the mob and ran afoul of it, your life was in danger. If you minded your own business, you did not have very much to fear personally from organized crime.
As we all know, the situation is radically different in Mexico.
Strangely, perhaps, John Gotti was not a shadowy figure. He did not hide from public view. He did not live underground. He did not pretend to be an honest businessman or a sickly invalid.
John Gotti lived in the open, in public as one of the most flamboyant mob figures since Bugsy Siegel.
Everybody knew who John Gotti was. Everyone knew what he was up to. Everyone followed the cat and mouse game that he was playing with the government.
Where Bernard Madoff masqueraded as a respectable businessman with homes in Palm Beach, Montauk, and the Upper East Side, John Gotti, for all of his silk suits, continued to live in Howard Beach, Queens.
Gotti never pretended to be other than who he was. Madoff always pretended to be other than who he was.
Thus, to Madoff goes the largest measure of shame. Not only did he cheat and steal, but he pretended to be an honest money manager.
You may not like the idea of honor among thieves, but much of the fascination with organized crime lies in the fact that many of these men have a strong moral code, a strong sense of honor, and a strong sense that it is all just business.
Of course, Madoff was utterly and totally respectable. The Federal government, through the SEC, knew who he was, and had received credible information about his criminal activities. It did nothing.
How could so respectable an individual, a man which such credentials, who belonged to the best country clubs, be a vulgar criminal?
While the government was doing its level best to turn a blind eye on Madoff it was unleashing the dogs of war against John Gotti and the Gambino crime family.
John Gotti was a thug. He was a lowlife in a silk suit. Just as Bernard Madoff could do no wrong, in the eyes of the federal government, Gotti could do no right.
Back in the old days people used to say that the safest neighborhoods were the ones where mobsters lived. Members of crime families shielded their families from their business. Mostly, they did not want their children to get into the business. They did not bring their business home. Criminal actions were for someone else’s communities.
People respected them for it. Mob bosses knew the difference between right and wrong. They built a wall separating business and family. Theirs was not the same code as the one that most citizens live by, but it was a code.
Madoff was different. He preyed on his friends, his family, and his neighbors, in people who put their trust in him. Friends at the country club, people who gave him the entirety of their savings, people who accepted his word because how could he have garnered such an exalted reputation if he was not good to his word?
Madoff betrayed a community and was, along with his family, and with anyone who bore the name, ostracized by that community.
As Mark Madoff found out, there was a good reason why the masters of organized crime kept their own communities safe. If you betray your own community, if your name becomes a stigma among those you spend all your time with, then, when the proverbial s#%t hits the fan, you have nowhere to go.