Of all Bernie Madoff's outrages none surpasses his request to keep $69 million. The betrayal of friends and charities? Well, business is business. The unfathomable scope? You know how it is: once you rip-off your first billion, the next sixty four sort of disappear on their own. But asking for that $69 million, what is the rationale? "My wife needs to maintain the lifestyle made possible BY MY CRIMES. Oh, and that particular bunch of money had nothing to do with the scam. It came from, uh, you know...mumble, mumble...sold my guitar...found two fives in my pants..." It's as if Jeffry Dahmer asked to keep some hands and thighs, because once you get a taste for run-away, it's really hard to quit. "Oh, and those particular cutlets weren't from murder victims. Just some folks...mumble, mumble...natural causes...wrapped themselves in foil..." But Dahmer didn't do that. He may have been a cannibalistic serial killer who drilled holes into people's heads to fill their skulls with anti-freeze, but he wasn't shameless.
Dahmer also had the good manners to get himself murdered in prison. While most reasonable people probably don't want Madoff killed, true justice demands more than just incarceration. Even for life. After all, in a few years, when everybody's flush and happy again and the current troubles are just something to have lived through, hearts will soften and Bernie will given furloughs. Maybe even parole. Then he'll vanish into the Adriatic aboard his yacht, free to enjoy the hundreds of millions he's undoubtedly stashed in a box buried under a tree somewhere upstate. Winner: Madoff.
To prevent this, Bernie has to be punished in a way that won't be soon forgotten, no matter how long he's in the pokey. In a more civilized age he would have put a bullet in his head by now, or cut out his own guts with some Japanese steel. Good luck finding someone with that sense of honor nowadays outside a Mexican drug cartel.
But our lust for vengeance need not call for capitol, or even corporal, punishment. If we look to the ancients, we find much more imaginative modes of retribution that have fallen into disuse. Public humiliation, for example. For some reason society has abandoned punitive measures rooted in the simple principle of embarrassment. Shoving a guy in the stocks, publicly exiling him, tarring and feathering, or making him march around wearing a sign listing his crimes were the sort of things people remembered and talked about for generations. They were also a way to let everyone in town take part in the justicing. Who doesn't enjoy pointing and jeering? Bring the whole family - it's all the fun of a public hanging without the bother of finding a sitter.
Unfortunately, here in the future attempts at besmirching the dignity of a felon would immediately be met with cries of "cruel and unusual" from professional sob-sisters of every stripe. (A Starbucks gift certificate awaits anyone who can name a legal concept less objective than "cruelty," and if we'd just engage in punitive humiliation more often it would by definition cease being unusual.) I believe I have a compromise. One that will openly display Madoff before the public as a soulless degenerate while keeping the civil libertarians at bay by dint of said punishment owing nothing to colonial America or ancient Rome - a Stalinist show trial.
Try to imagine it. An emotionally shattered Bernie is led to the dock, gaunt, unshaven, beltless. There he's ordered by a fanatically screaming judge to declaim a his crimes to the nation. The confession in he takes from his pocket has of course been written for him in floridly overblown Soviet style, with the added grace note of being entirely true. He unfolds the paper and in his weak, cracking voice he reads:
"My name is Bernard Lawrence Madoff, and I am a despicable lying cheating swindler. For over twenty years, I cultivated the trust of thousands of individuals and organizations with the sole intent of betraying and robbing them. I unlawfully took more money than has ever been stolen by a single person in human history. My name will forever be associated with treachery and deceit. I have disgraced my children, my wife and my late parents Ralph and Sylvia. My grotesque deeds are a blight on my family, my nation and humanity as a whole. The repercussions of my thievery will diminish the quality of all human life for decades. Worst of all, by bankrupting numerous charities I have personally elevated the level of misery suffered by the innocent throughout the globe. I deserve nothing but contempt and scorn, and to spend remainder of my life unloved and friendless, in solitary agonizing contemplation of my crimes and the countless lives I've ruined with my greed."
There. I think I feel a little better already.