Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Great Moral Debate
Bonnie & Clyde-- Cold Blooded Killers
or Victims of Circumstance??

This is one of the great B&C debates which like Springtime, re-surfaces regularly-- to incite fervent passion and politely (or thereabouts), heated exchanges-- among Bonnie & Clyde historians and highly skilled aficionados. One such renewed installment of this grand query, has occurred on the Boodles Board. It seems battle lines are drawn in the sand, for this advanced exercise in historical forensics, based on 2 distinct points of view.

The first is a sympathetic view of B&C-- as being products and victims of their Depression driven, dirt poor economic surroundings in West Dallas. Thus without a steady source of legitimate income, and having been harassed by the Dallas Police after his parole from the Eastham Prison-- Clyde saw no alternative, except to revert to the life of crime he had known as a teenager. This all went terribly wrong when he participated in the robbery of John Bucher, in which Bucher was shot and killed. From then on, Clyde felt he had nothing left to lose. Thus when push came to shove, murder (mainly in self defense) was a necessary but unsavory reality, for this desperado and his paramour Bonnie Parker.

The contrarian and hard line view of B&C, is that no matter how you frame it, Clyde, Bonnie and the Gang were no good criminals-- aggrandized street thugs, who graduated from tire and turkey snatching to organized robbery and murder. Clyde had little penchant for an honest day's work. As such, crime became his easy meal ticket, and running from the law-- his harsh and bitter reality. Moreover, Clyde had little regard for those outside the realm of his family and Bonnie Parker. He took what he needed, and killed callously when cornered. A conscious and insatiable need to be near their families, resulted in B&C continuing to run both near & far, but not far enough away-- to end the confrontations which only resulted in more senseless death. B&C had to be stopped, and in the end the law did what they needed to do. Bonnie & Clyde were rightfully killed regardless of the brutality of the Sailes ambush, on May 23, 1934. Some who subscribe to this view, believe Bonnie deserved to die and others break with that view-- saying the less guilty Bonnie should have been spared such a violent and early death, if it were possible.

These 2 traditional viewpoints, have recently been joined by a new hybrid squint. As this quite unique application of logic is conspicuously weighted more toward sympathy for Bonnie & Clyde-- than for the law, and those who died at the hands of the Barrow Gang-- I view this new approach as an adaptation of the B&C sympathy thesis. However, this alternative view of B&C is an interesting tight rope walk, encompassing the combination of 3 unlikely elements. First, having admitted compassion for Bonnie & Clyde as individuals. Next, rejecting the Barrow Gang's heinous actions as criminals. And thirdly, understanding and accepting-- environmental reasoning for B&C's plight. Thus the close to dozen murders committed by the Barrow Gang though unacceptable, were understandable.

At first glance, one might think these key elements to be incompatible. However, as the reality of most situations is often a combination of more complicated circumstances-- there could be more truth within this combining of views, than with either of the 2 polar opposite viewpoints alone. Although there is little evidence, that the realities of the Great Depression caused increased crime (crime actually decreased as a whole)-- there is evidence that murder rates increased, under the strain of hard economic times. Both domestic violence and criminally related killings, increased during this period.

Could Clyde have tried harder to carve out a new law abiding life for himself and Bonnie after Eastham?? In my view yes-- but I wasn't there. None of us were, so we cannot truly know the realities as they existed then. As every person seems to have a breaking point, before more intense action is begun-- perhaps Clyde was no different. Within the harsh realities of a downtrodden West Dallas during the early Depression years, perhaps little hope could be seen for a "better" life-- at that point. I would like to think differently, but again how would I know-- without having experienced the pain and suffering then. Today's economic situation is bad. But in few ways is it comparable to the extreme conditions which existed then. Murder can be justified by morally upstanding people, in but a few selected instances. Murder to rob and pillage, is not generally regarded as one of those instances.

I feel it only right, that those who support this sympathetic but perhaps more realistic hybrid view of Bonnie & Clyde, grasp the reality of Clyde and his gang being responsible, for between 11 and 13 deaths. That much murder and mayhem, cannot easily be explained, within an environmental justification for the actions of criminals. But times were different then. Each of us in searching for an acceptable answer to this moral dilemma-- between good and bad, right and wrong-- or some personally acceptable position in between-- will like our homes, choose a place we feel comfortable being within our love for this story. Perhaps the truth is, desperate times in the '30s created a uniquely desperate reality-- which is hard to comprehend not having lived through it. For those fans of old sci fi movies, Panic in the Year Zero, is a good screen portrayal of this remote possibility-- of human desperation one would hope, rarely if ever would occur.

1 comment:

Jassenia S said...

Thank you for this post. I would say im in that hybrid middle. I can definitely understand why Clyde took that path he did. Life can be so hard and there isn't always an easy way out. I don't believe murder is ever right, but im a firm believer of its us or them, and I would fight my hardest so that it wouldn't be "us". This was a great read, I always enjoy reading about this particular topic.
Shout outs to Winston!