14 July 2009

Public Enemies

"How many persons know that there is at this moment a national police force, or, if they know it, realize what this implies?" That's what Harper's magazine asked in 1934 when confronted with the rise to prominence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the killings that year of John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and "Baby Face" Nelson. Responding to legislation that had increased federal crime-fighting powers, the liberal monthly called it all "unnecessary or dangerous." And this was before many people had any image of J. Edger Hoover in their minds.

This tidbit comes from Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Burrough published the book in 2004, but I'm reading it only now because the current movie loosely based on the book renewed an old interest I had in the country bandits and other criminals of the 1930s. When I was a kid, one of my treasured possessions was a copy of Bloodletters and Badmen, an encyclopedia of famous criminals. Reading Burrough's book, I found myself recalling bits of history I had forgotten, along with much that was new to me. Michael Mann's movie doesn't do the book justice, focusing as it does on John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis at the expense of most of the other bandits and G-men who figure in Burrough's story. The film isn't bad, but it could have been much richer if it dealt straight with the material instead of indulging in Mann's personal archetypes of brooding criminals and lawmen.

I've reviewed the movie over at Mondo 70, but the book deserves some notice here because of the lesson it teaches about law, order and government. As the quote from Harper's illustrates, the growth of federal law enforcement has always provoked anxiety among Americans, whether they be liberals or libertarians. Burrough notes that to this day historians have questioned whether the crime wave of 1933-34 was as grave as Hoover claimed, or whether he exaggerated the menace to justify more power for himself. Without whitewashing Hoover or his glory-hunting underling Melvin Purvis, Burrough makes a case that there had to be an escalation of government power to deal with the country bandits. It had been too easy earlier for bank or train robbers to evade pursuers simply by crossing state lines. That had been true for a long time, but by the 1930s the bandits often outgunned and outraced the state or local police they faced, boasting faster cars and better weapons. Dillinger's gang was able to raid small-town armories with little opposition in the worst days. Reading of these depredations reminded me of news from Iraq after the invasion, when law and order had seemed to fail completely. Given that, in America, all this was taking place during the depths of the Great Depression, you couldn't blame people for thinking that the country was sinking into lawlessness or fearing that all levels of government were incompetent to deal with the small-but-deadly robbery gangs. Technological progress had given individuals and small groups an advantage over traditionally limited governments. Burrough shows that it took an increase in manpower, in bureaucratic organization, in surveillance and in both firepower and firearms training to defeat the country bandits. The War on Crime came with abuses of power and selective prosecutions (Hoover was long reluctant to go after the Mafia), but Burrough argues that it was a necessary part of the New Deal program of reviving people's confidence in government. Franklin Roosevelt himself believed that it would help his own reelection chances if the federal government could prove itself capable of subduing the robber gangs.

For some people, it's still an open question whether the expansion of federal power was worth it, but the fact is that by January 1935 almost all the high-profile bandits were dead or in prison. Burrough describes a trial-and-error process marred by embarrassing, sometimes lethal mistakes that nevertheless resulted in an efficient force that insured that Dillinger, Nelson et al had no successors. It didn't end crime, but it did restore a sense of order that had been threatened by the country bandits as objects of both fear and perverse admiration. Government had to evolve to meet a menace that had itself evolved out of social change. An absolute aversion to governmental evolution would offer no answer to new challenges like those presented by the Thirties bandits except for more of the same that had failed already. A presumption that government has inherent limits only leaves government increasingly limited when social change creates new opportunities for lawlessness. People concerned only with the dangers of government ignore dangers rising elsewhere at everyone else's peril. There are worse things than an excess of government. Let's hope it doesn't take hands-on experience for people to learn that lesson.

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