Thursday, October 24, 2013

Meditations on the Mafia

Currently I am undergoing a personal surge of interest in the American mob.

The midpoint of the bell curve of interest for this particular topic in me has probably been reached but there is still an enjoyable ride down the curiosity curve.

I'll watch a few more documentaries, read a book or two and then sufficiently equipped to make respectable mafia small-talk that -unfortunately- will take place only in my imagination, I will move on to something else. 

The Italian mafia is an interesting structure because the sophisticated nature of its organization both made it one of the most profitable and powerful criminal enterprises in the world and one of the easiest to dismantle when the tables have turned on it in America.

Destroying the mafia from a law-enforcement point of view wasn't rocket science. You institute surveillance of a few high-ranking members. Confront the mafiosi with the evidence you gathered and threaten them with a life behind bars in a supermax prison somewhere in Kansas. Low and behold, someone is going to rat and take down the whole hierarchy with their bought words.

This very process creates a sense of paranoia in the outfit as it begins to hunt rats real or imagined. The choice for a potential government informant is basically to bribe your way to freedom with your testimony or to die as a pseudo-rat at the hands of your paranoid comrades.

In effect, the mafia's ruthless response to potential informants made their embrace with the Feds all the more inevitable.

The process wasn't quite as simple as shooting fish in a barrel but neither was it all that more complicated. Once Hoover croaked and the FBI got a breather from the era where their number one goal was to spy on leftists, the mafia folded rather quickly, disintegrating into a dystrophic shadow of its former self.

All of this made it all the more annoying to watch the self-satisfied cops and officials go on about their "war on the mob" in the documentaries I watched.

There was no "war" because in this conflict the opponent didn't shoot back. It was more of a hunt. The criminal prey not much more dangerous than a deer in an expensive suit.

In Italy, the mafia did strike back, killing the persecuting investigators and politicians.

In America, the only government officials in danger were the undercover agents. For them it was a real war. For everyone else, it was more of a titillating, profitable sport.

Hell, Rudy Giuliani sprinkled his rise to power with the ashes of the mob.

Self-satisfaction comes easy to these in positions of power and all the macho declarations reminded me of the nausea I felt when reading about Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) -the congressman who initiated the heavy American funding for the mujaheddin in their battle against the godless Soviets in Afghanistan- hanging trophies of war like captured Russian weapons on the walls of his congressional office.

To me it seemed like pathetic bravado of a man who celebrated the spoils of war that not only didn't pose any risk to his well-being but gave his life a meaning and greatly enhanced his personal power and influence. The Islamist fighters leaped into the meat-grinder of the Soviet war machine while the smiling Texan alcoholic emerged with a captured AK-47.

Then again, these could be a bitter reflection of my subjective experience. After all, for a Russian, it is a bit awkward to read a book (Charlie Wilson's War) detailing the gleeful efforts of your adopted country to kill as many soldiers as possible from your country of origin in the dying days of the Cold War. Although the Soviets did the same in Vietnam.


In the "war on the mob" I was also surprised at the cozy relationship between the Feds and their psychopathic informants.

They didn't just get into the bed with ruthless killers, they also provided a happy ending and left a tip on the dresser.

One of the top FBI informants was Greg "the Grim Reaper" Scarpo.

A guy doesn't get a nickname like "the Grim Reaper" by running a chain of Chuck E. Cheese restaurants.

In fact, Scarpo -when asked by an associate how many people he killed- answered that he lost count after fifty. The bulk of these murders happened after he was a paid informant for the FBI and there are substantiated claims that the information flowed both ways all the while his allies in the government did their darnedest to keep him a free man.

Sammy "The Bull" Gravano whose deal with the Feds dismantled the Gambino family, killed a few dozen people including his brother-in-law. All the while Sammy slept in the bed with his wife who was ignorant of sharing a house with her brother's killer. Thanks to his cooperation, Gravano got off with a few years and is now a free man and a best-selling author of his autobiography, Underboss. The marriage couldn't be saved, alas.

The American idea is that all are equal before the law but if your killer turns out to be useful to the government he might end up as a comfortable retiree in Arizona sipping alcoholic beverages with federal agents who (after years of mutual back-scratching) became personal friends. That is the final chapter in Gravano's book of life.


The fall of the mafia also represents a kind of a demise of old, ethnic America. The Irish, Italian, Jewish neighborhoods of old fading away in the onslaught of generic yuppie gentrification. Ethnic identities that once meant something are being absorbed into the Family-Guy-watching, tritely ironic American melting pot of today.

There is a recorded conversation from a federal prison where John Gotti Jr was explaining to pops (serving a life-sentence) his decision to leave the life.

Speaking indirectly, Jr stated that he wanted closure.

"I want whats best for you, son" Papa Gotti proclaimed, "but don't use that word 'closure,' its a bullshit nineties word."

No fan of the mafia I nevertheless wanted to give John Gotti Sr a high-five.

Though he would probably think of that as a bullshit gesture as well. 

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