Dillinger would be zilch among today's crazies

MIKE ROYKO

March 17, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

It's hard to believe that John Dillinger was once the best-known criminal in America.

And that his fame lives on. Movies have been made and books written about his crime career. His biography is in almost any encyclopedia.

To this day, crime buffs stand in front of the Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago and say: "Wow, that's where the FBI gunned him down."

How big a story was it, when he was killed? Under the giant headline of the July 23, 1934, Chicago Tribune -- "KILL DILLINGER HERE" -- were three Page 1 stories.

And the index listed these stories inside:

"Dillinger's audacious crimes and his spectacular escapes captured the imagination of the public like no other criminal in American history. Page 2.

"High points in the life of John Dillinger from his birth in Indianapolis in 1902 to his death in Chicago last night. Page 2.

"Attorney General Cummings 'gratified' by shooting; Chicago agents praised. Page 2.

"Highlights in the career of America's most dreaded criminal. Page 2.

"Crowds gather at morgue to catch glimpse of Dillinger's body. Page 3.

"Examination at morgue reveals Dillinger had seared his fingers with acid. Page 3.

"Two eyewitnesses tell story of slaying. Page 3."

And not only in Chicago but all over the country. It was the end of the most sensational crime career of its time.

So why am I telling you this? To illustrate what a terrifying, wacky society we have become.

By today's standards of criminal behavior, Dillinger was a nickel-and-dime guy. If he were killed today, he probably wouldn't rate more than five paragraphs on an inside page, if that.

We're talking about a thief, not a killer. Sure, a higher-class thief than most because he robbed banks rather than 7 Elevens. But a thief, nevertheless. His bank-robbing career brought in about about $300,000, which he had to share with his gang. Even if you consider inflation, he didn't make as much as recent savings and loan swindlers.

Today, we don't even consider bank robbery news. Last year, there were 9,381 banks, S&Ls and credit unions robbed of $61 million. The death toll: 16 robbers, six bank guards, one bank employee, one customer. How many did you read or hear about?

And Dillinger was once ranked by the FBI as America's Public Enemy No. 1.

Now compare what Dillinger did to what you have been reading about or seeing in your newspaper the past week or two:

An anti-abortion demonstrator, wearing a gray business suit, waits outside a Florida clinic with other protesters, then takes out a gun and puts two bullets into the back of a physician who performs abortions. Earlier, the killer said he prayed that the doctor would "give his life to Jesus." He apparently decided to speed up the doctor's spiritual transition.

In Waco, Texas, a religious nut and his loony followers use their huge arsenal of military hardware to kill four federal agents. At last report, it was a standoff. Inside the compound, the head loony says he is waiting for God to tell him what to do; outside the compound, there are military tanks. The tanks are needed because -- who knows? -- the loony might say God told him to bring out the bazookas.

In New York, they are rounding up suspected terrorists for blowing a huge hole in the world's second-tallest building. The explosion, the smoke, the chaos were so dramatic that within a few days we forget that at least six people were killed. That's six more than Dillinger did in.

Those are the main crime stories of recent days. There isn't enough space in the papers or time on the news shows to deal with the run-of-the-mill street gang killings, the dope-deal murders, the punk gunman who robs a grocer, then shoots him between the eyes to see if the pistol really works, the morons who toss their girlfriends' kids out of windows.

A few weeks ago, the big story was the mass murder of seven people in a fast-food restaurant in Palatine, Ill. And there were the random highway killers in Florida. But those crimes are already dim history. They've been shoved aside by bombs in New York, the gun-toting messiah in Texas and the Bible-quoting doctor killer in Florida.

Just for a moment, let's forget Dillinger and switch to Jack the Ripper, who is probably as famous. He's been the subject of at least 100 books, thousands of magazine articles, several movies and millions of words in newspapers.

What did he do? He was a fiend, no doubt about it. He roamed London's seedy section about 100 years ago and carved up a number of prostitutes. He was never caught, but he has become a lasting symbol of evil and danger.

Compare him with our modern mass killers. Unlike the weirdo in Wisconsin, Jack the Ripper never cooked and ate his victims. Unlike John Gacy, he didn't bury them in his suburban basement. And he didn't slaughter entire families because a dope deal didn't go down.

We live in the greatest country in the history of the world. And everything else considered, maybe the craziest.

A final thought on John Dillinger. Whatever mischief he may have done, and it really wasn't that much, he never once said that Allah, Jesus, the Lord, or even the devil told him to do it.

God bless the lad for his self-sufficiency.

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