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We've been hearing a chorus of "Nail him," "Let him rot," "String him by the ..." And the chorus will just grow louder as we learn of more and more victims of Bernard Madoff's corruption and arrogance.
It started with the bass, sung by the megamillionaires suddenly left with bills they can't afford to pay: mortgages on mansions and pièds à terre, a yacht or two, stablesful of Lamborghinis and tuition for their kids' exclusive private schools.
Then we heard from the baritone section, the well-paid employees of said multimillionaires' companies. At the holiday season, they're keeping themselves busy by spending hours and days in line at the unemployment office.
Tenor is sung by the staff and directors of foundations that give away money to worthy causes, including bone marrow transplants, interfaith outreach programs, higher education, health care services for the elderly and disabled, medical research, religious freedom advocacy, criminal justice reform, fighting poverty.
And they're joined by the sopranos -- all the supporters of Jewish philanthropies (safe to say that's probably at least 40 percent of the nation's Jews, plus non-Jewish supporters of good deeds done by Jewish groups) and the other nonprofits that went under when Bernard Madoff broke their banks and their backs.
And screeching above this chorus are all the rest of us. With plenty of reason.
How could such a thing as what Madoff perpetrated against the American people -- and the recipients around the world of their largesse -- have ever happened here? Here, where regulations exist to keep this from happening? Here, where the government looks after its corporations, er, people, and doesn't allow such things to get so out of hand?
The Madoff mess is simply a microcosm of the bigger picture. Madoff did, possibly as a single person (and quite spectacularly) swindle a highly visible and influential amalgam of people and entities in the biggest hoax of modern economic times. Yet what he actually did is no more out of the ordinary than torturing people in U.S. prisons.
All of Wall Street has been engaging in just such crimes against the American people -- and the U.S. Constitution and other people around the world -- for decades. Corporations listed on the stock exchange, led by revered CEOs, COOs and CFOs (the U.S. royalty), pollute our waters, air and soil; peddle unsafe toys; build weapons of mass destruction; use government bailout money (our taxes) for resort vacations and other perks; send U.S. jobs abroad while running their employees' pensions plans and their small investors' life savings into the ground; and pay those top executives obscene amounts of money even as they're gleefully committing all of the above.
We have a hamstrung regulatory system and a Congress that is all too willing to bail out the incompetent (at best), hubris-filled corporate frat boys who are running these corporations. Alas, the federal government isn't the only enabler; state and local governments come down on the side of corporations more often than not.
Worse yet, our "justice" system almost invariably rules for the corporations against the people -- indeed, over the last century, the courts have given more and more rights of "personhood" to said corporations, so that they now literally have more rights under the law than you or I do. (Heaven forbid you should want your corporate neighbor to stop dumping toxins into the ground whence you get your family's drinking water; you'd be interfering with its right to make a profit. Who cares that your toddler's got Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or kidney disease? Nothing can get in the way of corporate profit, least of all a family or a community that's trying to protect its people's health, property and future.)
The Madoff case is simply the latest-despicable treachery in a long line of crimes against us. Truly many people are badly hurt by the man's crimes. We should be outraged, and surely those raising their voices in fury have every right to be singing at the top of their lungs. But what is shocking to me about this cacophony is that none of the singers has stopped to recognize the dichotomy between their reactions to two catastrophic recent events.
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Longtime journalist and humanitarian Maura Stephens is co-founder and co-director of Iraqi Refugees Assistance Connection and writes and speaks frequently about humanitarian issues in Iraq and elsewhere.