Bernie Madoff would have to live to be 221 years of age to complete the prison term to which he was sentenced yesterday. There is a cold comfort, not to be confused with schadenfreude, in the thought that he shall never again know what it is to be a free man. The difference lies in the simple justice of the sentence, the maximum, for crimes that were so heinous. It is wrong and it is criminal to defraud fellow investors. But, it is something worse than wrong to defraud charities.
Schadenfreude is the taking of delight in the misery of others. It is a sin, but a very delicious one. It is what we can almost forgive ourselves for feeling when the Rev. Ted Haggard, the fire-breathing evangelical who opposed any and all attempts by gay and lesbian people to secure their rights, was forced to admit doing crystal meth with a gay hustler. On multiple occasions. Or, when Jim and Tammy Faye lost their PTL empire as we learned that they had once bought hundreds of cinnamon buns for their hotel room because they liked the smell. Watching a hypocrite hoist on his own petard is what produces schadenfredue.
Bernie Madoff was not hoist on his own petard. His problem was not that he was a hypocrite, also he was also that. The problem is that he was a thief and that he stole from charities, a sort of Reverse Robin Hood for contemporary Wall Street. Righteous anger is the appropriate response. And, in this instance, because most of the money has been squandered already, the only thing that could right his wrong – returning the money – is impossible. This is why it is thoroughly appropriate for the judge to impose a sentence that screams to all the world: You don’t have to be a barbarian to be barbaric.
I was also delighted to see that our legal codes now permit the government to go after all of his assets, including those he tried to shield by placing them in the name of other family members. His wife’s tears left me thoroughly unmoved. Maybe she knew. Maybe she should have known. Either way, there is no conceivable way in which she should be permitted to live in continued splendor off of such ill-gotten gain. There are worse things than being a little poor as she will now find out. I do not wish her ill, unless she really did know what her husband was doing and said nothing. But, I do not wish her to enjoy a continued life of creature comforts either. Her husband should not have the comfort of thinking at least he provided for his wife and she has no inherent right to such comforts. Let her write a book or sell her story to the Star.
I am a softie for most criminals. I bemoan the fact that we spend so much money incarcerating drug addicts who really need treatment more than punishment. I think prisons should aim at rehabilitation, not just punishment. I abhor the death penalty. But, I read about Madoff’s crimes and I turn into the Mikado in the Gilbert & Sullivan show. I want to make the punishment fit the crime. In this case, there is no way to find a punishment that is worthy of the crime but 150 years of thinking about those crimes comes close.