Al-Qaida is not the Mafia, but a lesson can be learned

The Argument

Books

July 11, 2004|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

For American organized crime, the beginning of the end came in 1992. That's when the feds, armed with RICO, the anti-racketeering law, and the blood-drenched testimony of serial mob hitter Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, finally proved that while New York's last big don was indisputably dapper, he was not, after all, Teflon. Convicted on a wide-ranging racketeering indictment, John Gotti was sentenced to life without parole, solitary confinement 23 hours a day, the hardest of hard time. By the time throat cancer finally killed Gotti in 2002, it was widely accepted that the mob was also dead, ravaged by the same lethal combination of RICO and rats that had toppled Gotti.

Dead, but not forgotten. Now, the wiseguys who once lived by the code of silence all seem to have literary agents, and there are at least a couple dozen new mob-related books. They range from the tales of individual mobsters to scholarly analyses of organized crime in America, and even one titled The Psychology of the Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire and Betrayal in America's Favorite Gangster Family, by Glen O. Gabbard (Basic Books, 191 pages, $22).

While these books tend to be nostalgic accounts of the Mafia's heyday, taken together, they show how even highly sophisticated criminal organizations can be taken down by creative, aggressive law enforcement -- which has some direct parallels for the current war on terror.

Al-Qaida is not the Mafia. Moreover, current wisdom is that it was wrong to consider acts of terror primarily as crimes, even uniquely heinous crimes, rather than as fanatical unconventional warfare. And the most profound distinction between al-Qaida and the mob is al-Qaida's reliance not on repeat, career criminals, whose methods and patterns can be studied and anticipated, but on young suicide bombers who evidently believe in the glory of martyrdom.

But while the distinctions are real, consider the similarities. Both were hatched in foreign countries and imported to the United States. Both built infrastructure and reach during years when their very existence was almost universally unknown. In their early phases, both were protected from penetration and exposure by their foreign language and culture. Al-Qaida, like the Mafia, has a tightly controlled leadership structure. Until targeted, both organizations had vast and largely untraceable liquid assets. And Osama bin Laden, like John Gotti, will appear invincible until the day he is not.

With the benefit of hindsight, the law enforcement tactics used successfully against the mob were surprisingly simple. Since the Garden of Eden, the way most crimes get solved has remained unchanged: Someone talks. La Cosa Nostra countered this reality by its sworn code of silence, omerta: Anyone who talks will be killed. This was successful for decades, until the feds trumped omerta with the federal Witness Protection Program.

You can kill 19 people, as Sammy the Bull did, testify about it in court, serve a slap-on-the-wrist jail term, and then get a new identity and retire to sunny Arizona, as Sammy the Bull also did. Indeed, in the end, it may be argued that the Mafia collapsed largely because the government figured out an attractive Mafia retirement plan before the capos did.

The other central lesson is that the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute targeted not individual criminal acts, but the overall activities of a "criminal enterprise," the mob organization itself. Even more important, upon conviction, RICO makes all of the assets of the criminal enterprise subject to forfeiture, effectively denying the mob its institutional asset base. (This draconian seizure can have unintended consequences when a non-Mafia enterprise, most recently the Roman Catholic Church, implicated in the sex abuse probes, seems to fit the law's definition of a criminal enterprise.)

As roadmaps for the future, then, the latest mob books deserve attention.

One is American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power, by Thomas Reppetto (Henry Holt, 318 pages, $26), a former Chicago commander of detectives and president of the New York City Citizens Crime Commission. Reppetto traces the growth of organized crime from its origins in Sicily ("a paradise populated by demons," as described by Alexandre Dumas) through its rise to national power in the United States. It is a carefully researched and well-written account, but it ends abruptly with the Kefauver hearings in 1950. Aside from suggesting that "the mob will marry Wall Street," Reppetto devotes virtually no attention to the future of organized crime.

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