Friday, March 13, 2009

What Is the Right Punishment for Bernard Madoff?

In the old days people would have said that Hell was created for people like Bernard Madoff.

Now that we no longer believe in Hell we are at pains to devise a punishment that would befit Madoff's crimes.

Not that people have not been trying. A quick web search offers up: shark infested waters, an afternoon in a room with his victims, gang rape, being drawn and quartered, the Iron Maiden, a bullet to the head, exile to North Korea, life in a house of broken glass, and being forced to recite the names of his victims every minute of every hour of every day of the rest of his life.

Strangely, no one suggested water-boarding.

Elie Wiesel's proposal is the most elaborate and often quoted: "I would like him to be in a solitary cell with only a screen, and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying: 'Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to this child, look what you have done,' nothing else."

Of course, none of this rates with the torments that Dante offered to those who inhabited his Inferno. Our imagination seems rather impoverished in comparison. When it comes to torture we have become squeamish and banal.

But how could anyone devise a just punishment for Bernard Madoff when he was probably relieved to have gotten caught.

Beyond living a lie Madoff had spent the better part of two decades doing almost exactly what Elie Wiesel proposed as punishment. Do you think that he never imagined hearing those reproaches from friends and family.

Every day he was meeting with people who trusted him; he was having lunch and dinner with people who were grateful to him, who loved and idolized him. And every minute of every day he had to censor every word that came out of his mouth, lest he give away the con.

Being captured Madoff no longer has to dissemble. And he is now one person with one identity. I would guess that being infamously one person is better than being chronically two-faced.

Madoff has now been freed of the constant effort required to pretend that he was someone he was not. Surely, this will cushion the pain of living out the rest of his days in prison.

Worse yet, if we are to believe Mansfield Frazier, who seems to know whereof he speaks, Madoff will be prison royalty. He will be respected as an elder statesman, a modern Robin Hood. Link here.

A last point: I would guess that Madoff is making it psychologically tolerable by telling himself that he is sacrificing himself to protect his family.

He might even count this as the last shred of his human dignity.

We know that Madoff refused to plead guilty to a conspiracy because he wanted to shield his relations, many of whom worked along with him in the business.

If so, he is deluded. His actions have made his name a badge of infamy. His wife and children and grandchildren will henceforth be pariahs, ostracized from respectable society, no matter what their participation in the scam.

In a just world his family will also face prosecution and incarceration. For a man who no longer cares about what happens to him, the truest punishment would be the death of the illusion that he was acting ethically because he was protecting and providing for his family.

When he has to face their contempt and scorn, when he realizes that his crimes have put a curse on all of their lives... at that moment Bernard Madoff will know what it means to suffer.

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