Understanding Organized Crime and the Mafia

About the definition of organized crime in the modern world and how the mafia or mob relates to crime in the future.

The Mafia--Menace or Myth?

By Hank Messick

To understand the peculiar status of the Mafia's image today, it is necessary to define organized crime. In the absence of a better one, this writer will quote his own:

"Organized crime is a continuing conspiracy to gain money and power without regard for law by utilizing economic and physical force, public and private corruption, in an extension of the free-enterprise system."

To link organized crime and the free-enterprise system may shock some, but, after all, the goal of the gangster and the legitimate businessman is basically the same: to make as many fast bucks as possible. The gangster is simply more free with his enterprise than the businessman. And in a society where material wealth has assumed an almost theological aura, the gray area between the legitimate and the illicit narrows daily until it is sometimes impossible to say where one ends and the other begins.

The real executives of organized crime, the men who have made crime the biggest business in the country, were happy enough to let the Mafia take the heat. Much the same thing happened earlier when bank robbers such as John Dillinger and Alvin Karpis got the headlines while Lansky and Luciano built a national crime syndicate. Law-enforcement officials went along with the FBI's version of events because, one, they didn't know any better, and, 2, it was nice to have things made so simple. Law enforcement remains about 20 years behind in weapons, techniques, and intelligence anyway, and the things Joe Valachi described were comfortably outdated.

All the propaganda notwithstanding, the Mafia remains a dying institution and sooner or later will have to be abandoned as the old boys die off. Organized crime, on the other hand, is flourishing as never before. The war on crime, begun by Robert F. Kennedy, faltered badly under President Johnson and ground to a halt under Richard M. Nixon. With the heat off, even the Mafia is no longer needed. Crime will continue to prosper until, as the President's Commission on Law Enforcement put it in 1967, there is a change in "the hearts and minds of men."

Such a change isn't going to happen tomorrow.

The Author: A onetime college professor and investigative newspaper reporter, Hank Messick's recent published books include John Edgar Hoover, The Private Lives of Public Enemies, and The Beauties and the Beasts.

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