“Gotti Judas” read the splash headline in the New York Post on Thursday. “Mob turncoat Michael ‘Mikey Scars’ DiLeonardo…betrayed John ‘Junior’ Gotti,” the article continued, pointing particularly to the fact that the betrayer was the betrayed’s “former best friend.” On an inside page, another headline referred to him as a “gangland rat.” Hard words, you might think, for someone who’s just trying to help the state put a criminal behind bars. Isn’t it good to be that kind of “rat”? Why don’t they call Mikey Scars a “whistleblower” instead of describing him in the kind of language that Junior Gotti himself might be expected to use? There is no suggestion that Mr. DiLeonardo’s evidence about Mr. Gotti’s ordering the kidnapping and beating of Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels is to be doubted, or that “Junior” is anything but the crime kingpin everyone seems to assume he is. Why on earth shouldn’t such a man be “betrayed” by anyone who is in a position to see that he is brought to justice?
But the Post knows its audience, I think, and its audience feels — as do most people — a natural revulsion at the idea of a friend’s betrayal of a friend, no matter how good his reason. And it seems unlikely that Mikey Scars was motivated by the best of reasons. The story, by Kati Cornell Smith, made a particular point of the formal nature of the bond of loyalty that Mr. DiLeonardo broke:
DiLeonardo said he had taken the oath of silence [she writes] in which he swore he would never betray his Mafia clan — a vow he dramatically broke once again yesterday.
“If I betray the oath of omerta, may my soul burn in hell,” recounted DiLeonardo, who hesitated to look at Gotti when prosecutors asked him to point out his ex-pal in the courtroom, leaving time for defense lawyer Charles Carnesi to jump in and concede the identification.
At some visceral level, that is, Ms. Cornell Smith feels — and expects us to feel — that Mr. DiLeonardo’s act of disloyalty is worse than even the bloodiest of the deeds that his testimony accused his former friend of. He himself felt it, or so we may infer from the fact that he is said to have vomited at the very idea of such a betrayal, and later to have attempted suicide with the idea that “honor” might thus be satisfied. “I started to think about history,” the next day’s Post reported — “maybe dying like a good soldier. Thinking about the Romans. Drink a little wine, slit your wrists.”
The Romans were once famous for their sense of honor and doubtless still are among the self-conscious “men of honor” of the mafia. But they only make explicit the instinctive, or reflexive, sense of honor in all of us that can still rise up to take precedence over our more enlightened understanding of ethical and legal principles. I remember as a child a song sung by my grandmother — as respectable a lady as our little town could boast — whose refrain went like this:
But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.
Mr. Howard, she explained to me, was an alias of Jesse James, the famous outlaw and bank robber, and Robert Ford was the “dirty little coward” who, on April 4th, 1882, shot poor Jesse in the back while he was hanging a picture. The song, like the legend of Jesse James itself, remained popular for decades afterwards. Andrew Dominik’s film of Ron Hansen’s novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as the coward, Ford, is due out later this year and is the latest of dozens of movies on the subject — all of which more or less explicitly make the point that a betrayer of friendship, even a friend who is a criminal, is a worse thing than the robberies and murders the friend was guilty of.
One of the verses of my grandmother’s song went:
It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward;
I wonder how he does feel
For he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed
Then laid poor Jesse in his grave.
Could it be that Jesse’s rehabilitation in the song and elsewhere as a sort of latter day Robin Hood itself owed something to sympathy with him on account of this betrayal? “He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,” the song tells us: “He’d a hand and a heart and a brain.”
Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor
He never would see a man suffer pain,
And with his brother Frank he robbed the Chicago bank,
And stopped the Glendale train.
The word “Judas” in the Post‘s headline about Mikey Scars and the mention of his oath to burn in hell are further reminders of the mythic power of the closely connected stories of the innocent criminal — of which Jesus Christ is of course the ultimate example — and the friendly betrayer who pretends to a higher loyalty. Thus Dante put the betrayers of benefactors — “For he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed” — with Judas in the lowest circle of hell just as the mafia oath does. Honor may have fallen into disrepute with us, but deep down we have never really forgotten it, nor the feelings it continues to evoke in us.