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Five Things: Who Will Punish the Bankers?


That's all the we really want to know.

1) In the end we all get what we deserve... Unless, of course, we are bankers

"Wine can invest the most disgusting hole
With wonders to our eyes,
And make the fabled porticoes arise
In its red vapour's gold
That show in sunsets seen through hazy skies."

The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that pithy verse more than 150 years ago, long before the horrors of modern finance. Baudelaire was the French version of Edgar Allan Poe and, like Poe, he enjoyed the high-white scream of opium combined with large quantities of strong liquor, probably absinthe. While Poe died face down in a gutter, drunk, Baudelaire met his end in an insane asylum, semi-paralyzed by stroke. Which proves that in the end we all get what we deserve. Unless, of course, we are bankers.

"To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty."
- Maximilien Robespierre, 1794

Indeed. Nothing spooks a criminal quite like the blunt force of forgiveness, something Robespierre knew well. Which only partly explains why he generously doled out the guillotine's shiny blade of clemency during The Reign of Terror with such fierce determination. If nothing freaks out a criminal like forgiveness, then nothing deters one quite like a bloody pile of severed human heads.

2) Knee-Deep in Decapitations

It is a sure bet - a mortal lock as they say in the business - that if Robespierre was around today, we would be standing knee-deep in decapitations. It should not be surprising then that because they are situated closer to the French Revolution in both physical proximity and space-time, European bankers have a unique, preternatural fear of "public anger." After all, although it was 200 years ago, the average French citizen loved The Reign of Terror in precisely the same way awkward teenagers and freaky high school chorus teachers today love American Idol. The only real difference is that Robespierre was a far better dresser than Simon Cowell.

But that's not really the point. It's just an amusing little afterthought I allowed myself to indulge in while reading about the chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland, Philip Hamilton, who last Friday pleaded with Britain to "end the public flogging" of bankers.

3) Taste Our Salty Bread

I've had more than a few experiences with "public displays of punishment," so I can sympathize with Mr. Hamilton. But I've also experienced the metallic tingle of vengeance on the tongue, and there are few things more seductive than the mob's promise of a full-on meal. Where is our Robespierre?

It's a good question, or if not a good one, then at least it's The Question being asked with the greatest urgency these days.

"You are to know the bitter taste of others' bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes ascending and descending others' stairs."
- Dante Alighieri, "Paradiso"

That's all the mob really wants - someone to taste their salty bread. And the first fool charismatic enough to stand up and promise to deliver the full meal - whether it's Robespierre or Stalin - will be the one licensed to operate the guillotine.

4) Where is Our Robespierre?

Robespierre was small, bespectacled and unimposing with a cat-like face. He had a weak voice, but compensated for it with a strange, halting delivery, and although few understood his rhetoric, everyone could agree that he was a patriot. Which is all the reason anyone has ever needed to justify hacking human heads from their torsos.

"We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings aroused; where ambition is the desire to merit glory and to serve one's fatherland; where distinctions are born only of equality itself; where' the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the nation safeguards the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of the fatherland; where all spirits are enlarged by constant exchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where the arts are the adornment of liberty, which ennobles them; and where commerce is the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous opulence for a few families."

I've read that bizarre paragraph through 10 or 15 times now. And I have to admit, with unemployment edging upwards toward 10 percent, underemployment toward 20 percent, it doesn't sound half bad. Then, I remember it was written by Robespierre. Where is our Robespierre? He's probably Out There right now, busy writing speeches. Careful what you wish for.

5) How Did We Get Here?

So how did it ever get to the point where a nation of half-bankrupt debtors is spending time late at night wondering how to get back at the formerly-insolvent (but now bailed out) creditors? How did we get here?

Sometimes I awaken at four o'clock in the morning and find myself asking that very question. I stumble out of bed in the dark and peer out from behind hard-pulled shades at empty streets. At that hour anything that moves is simultaneously soothing and suspect; stillness a cold reminder that I'm standing there waiting for something that has already happened.

In other words, we got here in precisely the same manner as those in the preceding years, decades and centuries before us - by never really leaving in the first place.

1934 Chicago Tribune Editorial Cartoon (courtesy of Charleston Voice)

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