The Pity of Bernie Madoff

Opinion

By Louis E. Newman

Published March 25, 2009, issue of April 03, 2009.
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Bernard Madoff is in prison. All indications are that he will spend the rest of his days there, which is surely where he belongs.

Still, many express concern that he will get off too easy, and urge that he be made to suffer as his victims have suffered. Some would have him assigned to clean toilets in prison. On the Internet one can find comments calling for Madoff to be hanged on Wall Street or arguing that, had Dante known him, he would have been assigned to the lowest circle of hell.

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There is indeed something viscerally satisfying in seeing the person who has caused such harm subjected to the harshest possible treatment. I certainly understand the impulse behind calls for Madoff to rot in hell. My family was among the victims of his massive fraud. His crime has dramatically reduced our resources, diminished our capacity for charitable giving and derailed our plans for the future.

But this is a time to hold our baser instincts in check. Vengeance may bring emotional relief, but it does nothing to redress the wrong that has been done. Public cries for humiliation are the verbal equivalent of putting someone in stocks in the public square and throwing rotten fruit at him, a practice we have long since abandoned. In our desire to vilify the offender, we actually demean ourselves.

The morally appropriate response to gross misconduct is grief, shame and renewed resolve. We should grieve for the victims of this fraud, of course, but also for Madoff himself. When a man of such intelligence and stature uses his gifts in such evil ways, we should all feel pained at the tragedy of a life thoroughly ruined and a family forever disgraced.

In Proverbs we read, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Judaism reminds us that even our enemies are human, and the disgrace of another person is never cause for celebration. As Passover approaches, we should consider that most powerful ritual moment, when we symbolically reduce our joy by spilling some of our wine as the suffering of the Egyptians is recounted. When we consider the Madoffs of the world as a window into the dark recesses of the human soul, we should respond with pity and anguish, not anger or delight.

Make no mistake — I am glad that justice will be done, that Madoff will never be able to defraud people, as he has cheated my family and so many others. And I hope that his sentence, when it comes, will be a deterrent to others. But there is a profound difference between sober affirmations of the need for justice and gleeful, hate-filled calls that he suffer to the greatest extent possible.

Madoff’s fall is a human tragedy. It gives us an opportunity to look squarely at the worst of what humans are capable of doing to one another. As this enemy falls, let us pause, reflect on the lessons we can learn and weep at the painful tragedy of it all.

Louis E. Newman is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College.


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