My great uncle was in the Mob. Of course, none of us knew that at the time. He was a minor functionary, a fixer, whose job it was to approach judges and offer a fee for a preferred settlement regarding traffic tickets, code violations, zoning ordinances, and city inspections. Nevertheless, he lived in a lovely home in River Forest. He had a 26-inch color television set in his living room. He had a long, low-slung car -- a Cadillac, I think -- and his wife, my Aunt Pauline, wore furs and pearls around her neck.
We children were never to exclaim about these things on holidays, when we visited. We were to admire lovely new things if they were pointed out to us, but we were never to mention them on our own. Neither were we to expect much in the way of gifts from our rich-seeming uncle. He had not bought his possessions, my mother explained delicately. They were gifts from his boss.
My mother's directives came out of respect for my Uncle Mike -- out of the vague realization that his treasures were not trophies, at all, but consolation prizes, ineffective salves and balms.
Mike had not been born in Chicago. His family had immigrated in 1909, when he was 5 years old. They had come in search of New World security and comfort. Mike was the oldest in a family of five, and he set out as soon as he could to make a living. But the job market was tight. No one wanted to hire an underage dago, or wop, or spic, or wetback, or nigger -- those slurs were interchangeable then.
Mike's predicament was the same old predicament endured by millions of immigrants, who use it to gaze backward at how far they've come. It's the same predicament still endured by African Americans, the last hired and first fired.
It was different for my Uncle Mike only in that he had somewhere to turn. There was an "organization," he was told, that could get him a job. There was a guy he could see. So Mike went to see the guy. He got a job and perhaps said something like, "Thanks, I owe you one," or, "If I can ever do you a favor ..." Or, "How can I ever repay you?" You've been to the movies. You know how it goes. Unfortunately, Mike didn't, until it happened to him.
After he'd been here awhile, working, Mike's "friend" approached him for a favor. Perfectly legal, you know? So Mike did it -- and got paid for his trouble. His debt wasn't canceled, just postponed. Other favors followed, and they got shadier and shadier, until Mike came to understand he was an accomplice now, and implicated in the crimes. Of course, the organization would "protect" him -- as long as he stayed loyal. So Mike quit his job. He was working for what he called the "New Thing."
In some ways, Mike's career was not exceptional. His boss was generous. His job had lots of variety. He was part of a community, of sorts. He was able to rescue Pauline from her sordid career as a stripper. He and Pauline married and conceived a golden-haired boy whom Pauline called Donny and Mike called "Paisano."
It was a life. But there was something about it that rankled Mike. He didn't particularly like being dishonest. It bothered him to think of his dependence on his boss. And he dreaded the thought that Donny, who was frail and had only one lung, might go into the family business. So Mike decided to quit.
This quitting thing didn't go over so well with the boss. Like it or not, Mike was valuable now. So the boss cajoled Mike back into the business. The next time Mike quit, someone beat him up. The third time was the charm. Some thugs went for Donny. They beat him to pieces in a Rush Street alley. His one little lung collapsed, and Donny died. Mike never quit again.
And so the Mob protected Mike the rest of his life. Not until long after his death did the application of RICO laws finally bring La Cosa Nostra to its knees.
I used to think this was a peculiarly Italian-American story. Then I read something of the Bush administration's pamphlet called "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America." Now, suddenly, I see that Mike's travails can serve as an object lesson for us all.
The Bush pamphlet calls, somewhat euphemistically, for "a balance of powers that favors freedom." Like the guy who offered Mike a job, it sounds OK at first. Then, gradually, it goes on to clarify the euphemism. That's when things begin to get shady. First it praises tax cuts, environmental regulatory cuts, and "free" trade, the set of tools that will achieve the unimpeachable goal of National Security. Then it declares that the US must maintain forces "strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."
In other words, the document declares that the United States is the boss. It intends to use tax cuts for the rich, environmental deregulation, and military strength to remain boss. And in its position as the boss, it purports to "protect" Europe (and maybe Japan) against the rest of the world -- as long as they remain in their assigned and accepted place. In short, my family's story is in danger of becoming Europe's story, too.
I know that some people blame Italian immigrants for the power of the Mob in America. Similarly, some observers might think this turn of events is Europe's own fault. The nations of Europe accepted US help in rebuilding their countries after World War II. They welcomed US protection for more than half a century. They let themselves be bought off by the promise of security and their own growing affluence. Like my Uncle Mike, they may not have seen the creeping danger of dependence upon a greater power.
Unwittingly, perhaps, postwar Europe allowed the US to become the world's boss. Now the boss wants to call in "favors." He needs runners, and fixers, and thugs. And he won't be stopped by reason or will or defiance or even a call for mercy. He can only be kneecapped -- slowed down and hobbled -- by a dedicated application of law.
As a grown niece who remembers how grand possessions did nothing to free my great uncle from grief, as a third-generation Italian-American woman who saw the damage done, as a citizen powerless to influence her lawmakers or get the attention of the press through legal protests, I want to plead with the nations of Europe to stand together for the rule of law.
I want to tell them this: Do not fall prey to Bush's promises of protection. Do not think that one bully can protect you from another. Do not falter in the application of moral action in an immoral world. Freedom from hegemony is your greatest possession. Protect your freedom. Protect yourselves.
Sheri Reda is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She is also a farming enthusiast, student of theology, and consulting editor for Conscious Choice Journal of Ecology and Natural Living.