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Column - Will bandit become hero?

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It seems societies everywhere have a deep-seated need to admire folk heroes - " heroes" that are not so nice.

The most famous folk hero is England's Robin Hood who, we've been told, robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Never mind that Hood was probably not an actual person. He is, most historians agree, a legend only, but that makes no difference in the popular mind. Hood the legend personifies the longing for justice so long denied during hundreds of years of English history.

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Other folk heroes, here in America, include Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde and - more recently - D.B. Cooper. The first three were cold-blooded killers, but through the distorting lens of popular culture their vicious deeds were "applauded" by people who wanted to believe they were victims of oppression who - like Hood - robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Dan "D.B." Cooper is the man who, in 1971, hijacked a commercial jet, obtained a ransom of $200,000 and then parachuted out of the plane somewhere over the state of Washington. He's never been found, but his status as "hero" is very much alive for some people.

There are some good folk heroes, such as Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone and Johnny Appleseed. But most of them tend to be bad apples - outlaws, gutsy lawbreakers, anti-establishment desperadoes. In idolizing these nasty people, the consequences of their behavior (murdered victims) are completely ignored or overlooked. In that way, popular culture becomes an enabler of criminals.

In American culture, especially, there has always been a sneaky identification with the bad guy, the outsider, the varmint who breaks all the rules with his own reckless style. So many American movies, songs and novels have paid tribute to the outlaw. During Billy the Kid's violent rampage in the Southwest, hundreds of trashy dime novels were churned out practically overnight to keep up with demand.

Some of the great Woody Guthrie's best songs are about outlaws who dared to challenge the status quo, often through violent means. One of the masterpieces of cinema, "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) flirts with the idea of that bank-robbing couple as folk heroes, although it's made clear, in the shattering ending, those "heroes" got what they had coming.

This American identification with outlaws who pull off sneak attacks against the powers that be might stem all the way back to our revolution when the object of ridicule and scorn was King George of England. Americans have long lauded the courageous-and-stubborn lone individual versus the king, the state, the government.

That is why we need our folk heroes - good ones like Davy Crockett and not-so-good ones like Jesse James.

The latest folk hero, at least to many people, is the "Barefoot Bandit" (aka Colton Harris-Moore) who was just nabbed in the Bahamas after stealing a plane in Indiana and flying it 1,000 miles, only to crash-land it on a Bahamian island. The 19-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch felon, originally from Washington, has been stealing and burglarizing since he was 12 years old. He has stolen and flown several small airplanes, learning to fly - apparently, amazingly - by watching how-to videos.

"It's like something you might see in the movies," said a Bahamian police commissioner after the bandit was captured after a boat chase.

The movies. Exactly so. I can just see producers scrambling to be the first to make a hit movie based on Harris-Moore's antics. The bandit has everything it takes to be a folk hero. He's smart, he's gutsy, he thumbs his nose at authority and he's got a daring style (committing some crimes while barefoot and, in one case, leaving chalk-drawn crime-scene footprints on the floor of a place he burglarized). The bandit has at least 60,000 fans on Facebook.

Folk heroes like Bonnie and Clyde flourished in the 1930s when common people had learned to mistrust and hate big institutions, especially banks. Thus, it was easy to identify with and glorify gun-toting thugs with anti-establishment chips on their shoulders.

In the wake of the Wall Street melt-down, mortgage foreclosures, massive unemployment and BP arrogance, is it any wonder many people feel the need for a new folk hero?

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