Analyze This: Far beyond stray bullets

Will the Bat Yam botched mob hit backfire on organized crime?

mounted police bat yam  (photo credit: Yuval Erel, Tel Aviv Police)
mounted police bat yam
(photo credit: Yuval Erel, Tel Aviv Police)
On July 28, 1931, five-year-old Michael Vengalli and several other children were playing on a New York City sidewalk in front of a "social club" run by an associate of notorious gangster Dutch Schultz, when a car drove by and the men inside began shooting in their direction. Vengalli was killed instantly and four other children were wounded, as the car made a clean getaway. The incident sparked a national furor and was a turning point of sorts in America's attitude toward organized crime. In the wake of a similar atrocity here - the gunning down by gangsters of bystander Marguerita Lautin on a Bat Yam beach Monday in front of her husband and two children - it is worth examining what transpired in the wake of the Vengalli killing, and what lessons we can glean from it that are applicable to our current situation. "The most damnably outrageous thing I've read in a long time," reacted New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose vow to crack down on organized crime and official corruption helped raise his political profile on the way to the White House, where he repealed the liquor-prohibition laws many blamed for fueling the rise of the mobs. The public furor also helped advance the career of Roosevelt's eventual replacement as NY governor, Thomas Dewey, then a special prosecutor whose pursuit of such crime kingpins as Schultz introduced a whole range of new legal techniques in the fight against organized crime. When the gangster behind that shooting was identified as Schultz nemesis Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, police were allegedly given "shoot-to-kill" orders to apprehend him. More significantly, they were finally given the budget to upgrade their efforts with a new crime-fighting technology: radio cars. This is the impact one particularly egregious incident can have in mobilizing public opinion to the point where governments have to react more aggressively in dealing with a problem, especially when its victims are given a sympathetic face and name by the media. In this case, the courageous decision by Lautin's grieving husband, Alexander, to make himself readily available to the press the day after the shooting, and to actually encourage coverage of his grieving children to rouse outrage against the problem of organized crime, may help make the tragic death an equally significant moment in this society's struggle against the mobsters. But an important point needs to be made about the Vengalli killing that has no small relevance to the how this issue should be handled here. The fact is, despite the efforts of Roosevelt, Dewey and many other crusaders to put high-profile mobsters behind bars, they did not end up significantly crimping the activities and influence of the mob. What happened instead was that in reaction to the heat being put on it, organized crime wised up and got more organized, strongly enforcing its internal discipline to prevent such violent public incidents from happening. As one underworld insider told the New York Daily News, "Every time there is a killing affair like that business of the kids, the cops and everybody get so busy we can't operate. Now the federal people are moving in with their income tax stuff, and it's got the racket shot to pieces. We've got to get rid of these 10-cent creeps and wrong guys if we want to live." And so they did. It was their fellow gangsters who eventually put an end to trigger-happy cowboys like Schultz and Coll, while more efficient godfathers like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky kept the business running. It may be that our Israeli equivalents will now get similar smarts after the Lautin murder, and those elements of the Aberjil crime family who allegedly carried out this nefarious deed will soon find themselves out of the picture, one way or the other. That, of course, would be better than the current situation, which sees gangland hits being carried out by bombs and rocket launchers in crowded city streets. Yet such public violence is only one symptom of the disease that is organized crime, and as dreadful as the results can be, it is certainly not its most widespread and insidious impact. Corruption of government and legitimate business; the promotion of social ills such as drug addiction and prostitution; and especially the dangerous intersection between profit-motivated criminality and ideologically-motivated terrorism, are the real threats that mobsters pose to this or any other society. At its worst, as is abundantly evident in such places as Colombia, southern Italy and parts of Eastern Europe, such criminality can rise to the level of a legitimate national strategic threat. While Israel is fortunately not anywhere near that point yet, there are disturbing signs it is heading in that direction - not in crimes such as the Lautin murder, but, for example, in the alleged involvement of "grey market" loansharks in several major scandals in the financial and business sectors (such as the Heftsiba real estate affair). Combating this phenomenon will of course require giving police and prosecutors the laws and resources they need to wage this battle - no easy condition, considering the other demands made by our overall security situation. More than that, it will also require the public to pay proper attention to the issue long after Alexander Lautin has faded from our television screens, so that the problem finally gets the kind of sustained and effective treatment that only in recent decades has seen the US finally crimp La Cosa Nostra. Whatever justice is meted out to the killers of Marguerita Lautin and the rest of the Aberjil family, organized crime will always be with us in one form or another, as long as people have illicit desires that it can profitably serve. But if this particular cancer can never really be cured, it certainly must be contained here, before its spread claims more innocent victims. [email protected]