In the NY Times A Section on Wednesday, there were two profiles of bandits. The better known story is that of Colton Harris-Moore (or The Barefoot Bandit), who was finally brought into custody last week in the Bahamas after evading the authorities for two years. Harris-Moore (no relation) stole planes which he taught himself to fly and crash-land, walking away time after time. He has become a folk legend, and the profile treats him sympathetically. The author, William Yardley focuses on his childhood, when Harris-Moore was maltreated by his mother and went hungry when they didn’t have enough food to eat. The bandit is described as harmless and misunderstood: a resourceful kid always looking for a home with a full fridge.
The other profile would probably never have appeared in the Times if not for the specifics of the man’s death. Arthur Williams was 63 when he went to rob a Madison Ave. clothing boutique, and he brought the oxygen tank he needed to breathe. On July 11, he died in the resulting police chase after losing control of his Cadillac. Bandit legends are made from details like these, but the writer, Michael Wilson, rejects a sympathetic interpretation of the events:
“He [Williams] would seem, from a distance later, after his shots missed and no one was hurt, like perhaps some character in a gravel-voiced blues song or a movie about a flinty old desperado who needed one last score.
But as more details emerge about the robber, Arthur Williams, the romantic portrait crumbles to reveal a hard man, a thief beyond rehabilitation who, in his final days, embarked on a three-state crime spree that defied logic and reason.”
What jumps out at me about these sentences is that there isn’t as much contrast here as intended. Was there ever a “flinty old desperado” who was not also a “hard man?” Any “character in a gravel-voiced blues song” who wasn’t “beyond rehabilitation?” American culture loves a bandit because their exploits “defy logic and reason.” It seems like this fine line between folk hero and menace to society is largely a matter of interpretation. This is the simple lesson of so many mediocre crime movies, but it’s fascinating to watch the line drawn on a single page.
In the article on Williams, his motives are explicated in full: “He was behind bars for more than 33 of the 34 years between 1975 and 2009, and in a two-month burst during a brief period of freedom in 1986, at age 40, he robbed at least 38 people in Manhattan in their apartments. He would explain why years later, at a parole hearing: ‘Heroin and cocaine.'” Yardley mentions in his piece that Harris-Moore escaped from a juvenile halfway house, but never says anything about substance dependence and certainly never uses it to explain the bandit’s crimes. Instead, he looks into his relationship with Pam Kohler, using a journalistic tactic my mother calls “cherchez la mom.”
So Williams dies, with the paper of record clarifying that he was not a romantic figure but an irredeemable thief. And Colton Harris-Moore will likely face a jury, and (perhaps more frightening) his own army of defenders. It’s certainly worth mentioning while looking at the differences in their portrayals that The Barefoot Bandit is young and white while The Oxygen Bandit was a black ex-con with an AARP card. A daredevil thief may commit the same crime as a vicious outlaw, there’s no doubt skin color can make that crucial difference. Williams and Harris-Moore seem to share much in common, but their stories, told in the same paper on the same day, don’t.