Bank robbery was once the signature American crime, the crime every true red, white, and blue loving hoodlum dreamed of committing. In the 19th century Jesse James robbed banks, as did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, setting a standard for high risk pilfering scarcely reached since. In our own time, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson all made themselves legends committing bank robberies; Bonnie and Clyde even had a classic movie made about them and their thieving ways, the eponymous film having very little to do with the truth, as is standard in Hollywood. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were much better looking than the originals and the psychotic duo’s total take from all their robberies didn’t add up to what Al Capone spent on ties in a month, but that didn’t matter: they were bank robbers. Later in the century, Willie Sutton summed it up best: he robbed banks, he said, because that’s where the money was.
And it was fun rooting for the bank robbers, too, especially if you weren’t anywhere near the bank when they rolled into town looking for an easy score. During the Depression, desperate dirt farmers in Oklahoma cheered Pretty Boy Floyd on, knowing that he’d not only take the bank’s money, he’d burn all the mortgage papers and foreclosure notices and any other records that would make it easier for the bank to run you off your land. Watching a fellow Okie take the bank down a peg made a lot of poor folks feel better about themselves and their situation. After the Depression, people cheered Willie Sutton on, first, because he rarely used violence, and second, with the arrival of federal deposit insurance, no one had to worry about their life savings disappearing into someone’s pillow case and out the door into a waiting car; it’s easy to cheer for the bank robber when you know the money in your account is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. It’s like getting free lottery tickets for your birthday: you have a sporting interest, but no real involvement, not like you’d just sold your children’s kidneys, mortgaged the house, dropped the wife off the back of a train, and then spent the money trying to win the MegaMillion Dollar jackpot.
Since Sutton’s heyday, however, bank robbery has fallen on hard times. The number of bank robberies has gone down, of course, due to the baleful influence of the FBI, but the bank robbers left on the street these days are a fairly pedestrian crew, pulling their jobs without any of the panache that marked earlier generations of American hold-up artists. This has had an unfortunate effect on the nation’s young people. More and more kids want to be dope pushers when they grow up these days, and now, and I blame this on rap and the hip-hop culture so prevalent amongst the young today, there is a sudden surge of interest in pimping as a criminal career, something the bank robbers of an earlier era would have turned their noses up at, even as a last resort. Most of them would have gone straight first before relying on working girls for their ill-gotten pelf. Some filthy lucre was just too filthy for any self-respecting thug to take. That pandering is even a career option these days shows just how far the standards have fallen since the halcyon days of the great bandits.
What then to do about resuscitating the great American crime from its current doldrums? I have heard a great many suggestions, some more nonsensical that others, to tell the truth, but it seems to me that educating our young people is the key to preserving this once great felony from the misuse it has fallen into over the past few years. This, coupled with removing banks from shopping malls, supermarkets, and eliminating ATM machines, followed by a return to traditional bank architecture, will raise bank robbery to the status it once enjoyed throughout the nation. No one robs banks anymore because in the rush to make banking easier for everyone no one thought of its impact on hoods, thugs, and other assorted riff-raff. A gang of bank robbers going into an old-fashioned bank, an institution that breathed respectability, rectitude, and the Republican Party, a building built like a castle on the Rhine, was making a statement about their willingness to challenge the odds and dare criminal greatness; a gang of bank robbers hitting a bank in your local Shop-Rite, Kroger’s, or Winn-Dixie are just being slobs who’ll probably be caught as they try to get a double decaf latte with no sugar at the Starbucks concession. This is the sort of thing that depresses many people who keep track of this sort of thing. I mean, really, if the criminal element refuses to maintain high occupational standards, even in the face of the FBI’s constant harassment, then what hope can there be for the rest of society?