The Romance of Bank Robbery

What in the world could possess someone to wake up in the morning and say, “Today I think I’ll rob a bank.” This simple, declarative statement reads as if it came out of the 19th or early 20th century, when our idea of the “classic” gangsters roamed the streets. Today, in the early years of the 21st century it seems that, especially in New Hampshire, the fine old art of bank robbery is still with us.

It’s unbelievable to me why anyone would want to rob a bank today. With the technology banks employ and the boom of a society of surveillance, how could anyone hope to get away with a bank robbery? Recently, while driving home from work one evening, I drove past a dozen or so state trooper cars. As I slowed, I noticed several of them were thoughourly searching a civilian car like some scene from Law & Order or CSI. Further along, I noticed a trooper car with its lights on blocking the entrance to my own bank. I knew right away that it had been robbed. My first thought was to wonder if my money was safe. Then, realizing how ridiculous that thought was today, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God nearly everything is virtual today. As I write these words the robber, or robbers, have yet to be caught. So much for the technological advances in bank security.

When I recently moved my family here from upstate New York to assume an assistant professor position at Southern New Hampshire University, one of the things that struck us right away was the alarming frequency with which bank robberies took place in New Hampshire. Like most people, we expected the postcard-like towns, the Moose, the cold, and the refreshingly white snow. The New Hampshire we were beginning to encounter did not coincide with the quaint New England towns we had pictured. As interesting as Manchester is, we were not prepared for the urban milieu and its crime. Granted, crime is considerably lower than just forty of fifty miles to the south and across the Massachusetts border. New Hampshire is not Massachusetts—yet. When we began to read about the frequency of bank robberies taking place we could not help but ask, “Are things so bad for some people that a certain desperation drives them to rob a bank?” Moreover, what is it that inspires a would-be bank robber to under take his task? We came to the conclusion that bank robbers must be some pretty desperate individuals today; would-be thugs who have given themselves over to the temptation of a little bit of larceny.

Nevertheless, I can not help but feel that there is a certain degree of romanticism that accompanies the image and persona of a bank robber, especially today when all the stakes seem to be stacked against them. New Hampshire is not New York City or Boston, nor is it the wild west. Yet, these would be bank robbers achieve a certain attractive degree of celebrity even here. A small part of me roots for them to get away with their crime. America’s fascination with the bank robber dates back to the 19th century. During this era the likes of the Dalton and the James gang blasted their way into the American cultural consciousness. Later, during the 1930s, the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, and perhaps most famously, John Dillinger captured the popular imagination. Certainly Hollywood’s mythification of these individuals had much to do with our fascination with bank robbers. There is an undeniable sense of the romantic, errant Robin Hood-like aura surrounding the bank robber. I believe that this still holds true today.

The alarming rise in bank robbery crime in New Hampshire is adding another dimension to the “Live free or Die” state. Perhaps in order to really live free one must first have a certain sense of monetary security. In order to achieve this security, desperation is driving many of these criminals to fall back on the art of bank robbery. The word “art” in that previous statement seems misused to me at first. Yet, I do believe that anyone willing to rob a bank today is working at an art. I’m not sure how much planning most of these thugs put into robbing a bank, but I do know that I myself do not have a clue on how to go about it. Perhaps that’s just as well. If we combine this need for monetary security and the contemporary obsession with celebrity, we may begin to gain an understanding as to why someone would undertake such a high-risk venture. To get away with bank robbery, especially today, constitutes an achievement in pulling the rug out from under the sovereignty of security. This, at least for me, is incredibly attractive. We have come to depend upon technology so much that our lives are becoming increasingly less human each day.

In a contemporary world full of white collar crimes like the Enron scandal, and the Web based crimes like computer viruses, phishing, and identity theft, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of nostalgia when someone undertakes a bank robbery. When someone physically walks into a bank and demands that the patrons get on the ground and that the tellers put all of the money they have into a bag, it suggests that we have not given ourselves over to technology completely, at least not yet. The person who robs a bank does so in person, and not over the Internet 3000 miles or a country away. In the fine old art of bank robbery people are still connecting; albeit in a potentially violent way. The romance that accompanies the bank robber is surely lost on those unfortunate enough to be present during the hold up. Still, to have the bravado to rob a bank in the 21st century implies that an age old art has not been lost. That, at least, is a small comfort to this would be larcenist.

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