I have only known two Mafia members in my life. One, whose son (an “accountant”) lives across the street from my mother and father, disappeared, then turned up frozen solid in the trunk of a car a few winters back. The other was one of the oddest human beings I have ever met.
I only knew him as “Abbie”. He used to show up regularly at a corner grocery store where I stacked cans on weekends during high school. Abbie looked like any number of fiftyish Italian guys at the time: handsome, dark tan, powerfully built, going a little fat, yellow Cadillac. It was only when one of my uncles, who worked in the store as a second job, warned me to be careful around Abbie that my eyes opened onto a different world.
Abbie was a pleasant guy with good, if slightly rough, manners. But he was a collector—as in baseball bats. Back then the states were not in the lottery business, so everybody “played the numbers.” There was no legal, off-track betting yet; the mob handled the trade. The Money Store still hadn’t been invented; if you needed a loan a bank wouldn’t approve, the Mafia was an equal opportunity, alternative lending institution. For most people, it meant indulging relatively harmless vices. For others, it led to disaster. Abbie was the business end of the disaster.
I never heard a harsh word from Abbie. In fact, he seemed mild to the point of sentimentality. In bits of conversations, I picked up that he and his wife had no children. It bothered him so much that he bought a monkey to keep them company. On a typical Saturday, he’d come into the store, ask Fred the butcher to trim all the fat off the best cut of meat, and to grind it up for the monkey. The monkey got sick: He bought it an oxygen tank and nursed it back to health. Whenever he’d leave the store, we’d all scratch our heads: How could this guy, so regular and even soft-hearted, be a murderous thug?
As I started thinking about the likely scenario of the presidential campaign over the next year, Abbie came to mind. It might seem extreme, even a little wild, to compare some of our merely ambitious and venal prospective candidates with a Mafia collector. But that is because we’ve gotten used to thinking about them as regular guys and gals with a couple of flaws. With the economy humming, no major threats abroad, and crime in retreat at home, we are probably in for a season of candidates vying for the title of “most compassionate.” The summer debate over patient’s rights and HMO reform is just a harbinger of the kinds of issues the media will encourage us to believe are the most important. But for no little time now those same media have been brainwashing us into thinking that the “moderate” position on the life issues requires us to tolerate numbers of people dead at private hands. If more than a million Americans a year were being gunned down by the mob, we would have a national mobilization the likes of which we have not seen since World War II to restore sanity to our streets.
Journalists and candidates this year will not be using baseball bats to perpetrate the slaughter, but only because they don’t have to. They’ve made sure that the engines of death can continue cranking in courtrooms and clinics while they use compassionate euphemisms. When we hear the talk about choice and “reproductive health services,” we ought to think of it in the same way as when a Mafia don says a murder is nothing personal, it’s just business.
The business-as-usual side of the whole problem may be the worst deception of all. We would find it a little surprising, if the Supreme Court were to rule that the mob’s services and fees were things that the American people, through long experience, had become used to having, and that we should stop bothering the Court with requests to curtail its operations. Yet we are going to hear a lot of arguments like that in the next twelve months.
Our bishops have issued a good statement on the life issues, rightly pointing out that being “good” on welfare or health care or compassion cannot be used as an excuse for compromises with the forces of death. We need to see, this campaign season, a moral urgency that loses none of its power just because it wants to be civil and reasonable. Indeed, because we want to be civil and reasonable, our concerns are more urgent. By all means, let us have a national debate on the meaning of compassion. But let’s start with a simple proposition: Compassion starts where murder stops.