A depraved billionaire died in Manhattan this weekend, and this story will never leave us.
I understood this from the moment I heard the news. I was hanging out with a buddy Saturday morning. My friend asked me about the suicide. I said I hadn’t heard. He asked if I was joking. I assured him I wasn’t—I am immune to the evils of hot news on weekends. Then he told me about Epstein. And then I descended into being very online. I quit browsing Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Yet I spent the better part of six hours, night and morning, scanning the threads.
Occam’s Razor argues Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself in a jail cell. After two days of pondering the strange passing of an American monster, this is the only conclusion I can justify. Any other version of this story requires too many moving parts. There are two possibilities for Epstein’s death. Either he killed himself, and the jail missed it. Or there was an elaborate conspiracy.
Let us speak plainly. What are the required conditions for a conspiracy? We know Epstein had enemies. For us to accept the conspiracy story, we must believe Epstein’s enemies would risk their positions by ordering the killing of a central figure in an international scandal, in one of the largest cities in the world. These conspirators would know that Epstein’s homicide would not be ignored or forgotten.
On the other hand, if Epstein committed suicide, the required conditions are simpler. The jailers had to be incompetent boobs. This agrees with reason. If you have ever been the guest of any large urban police department, you will understand that Law & Order is a lie. Am I willing to believe prisons are shabby, cruel places where rich men go unwatched? Yes.
I am emotionally invested in the Epstein story, and if you’re reading this, so are you. We all are. Why is it so hard to believe that a man who’d lost everything would kill himself? Why is believing in an Epstein conspiracy so emotionally satisfying?
For a very simple reason: it balances.
William Manchester, who wrote The Death of a President, said that Americans believed in a JFK conspiracy because a single gunman did not jive with the hugeness of the crime:
... if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald.
Epstein is the inversion of Manchester’s scales. He was massively evil, and embodied the simple cruelty of our system. He was untouchable in life, and now he’s beyond the law. He had so much dirt, it seems impossible that he should vanish all on his own. But he has, and almost certainly by his own hand. If we feel cheated, how should his victims feel?
With the exception of the current president, you could not design a figure who better represents the essential injustice of our society. Not just his crimes, but his untouchability. Epstein’s perversions were not secret.
Until his death, Epstein was the best symbol of How The World is Run. He was wealthy, evil, and guarded from on high. But—and this is crucial—Epstein wasn’t protected by a conspiracy. Epstein was protected by a system, our system. There’s a difference. Conspiracies are comforting illusions. They allow us to believe our system is basically just, and that our egalitarian country is being corrupted by a few bad actors.
In reality, America is organized from the ground up to protect extremely rich people, and Epstein was rich. There’s no conspiracy in that, any more than there’s conspiracy in the tax code. The injustice that protected Jeffrey Epstein is public, obvious fact.
The Epstein homicide conspiracy lets us pretend that clever, competent supervillains control the world. But that’s not how it works. If you want an example of boring, doo-dah, vanilla-milkshake, one-percent skulduggery, I invite you to read the incredibly dull Panama Papers. You know what the Papers consist of? Basic accounting tricks.
Conspiracy is an immature word to express the way the world is governed. There is no secret boardroom full of cigar smoke, no hidden headquarters, no shadowy parlor. Nothing so crude. There is an interlocking system of class interests, and these interests defend their wealth and power.
Most of the people who work inside this system are incredibly boring, incredibly deluded, and incredibly conflict-averse. Most of the time, the system defends itself through structural violence. Most of the time, this system is so invisible, bland, and normalized that we can’t see it. Most of the time, the one percent keeps their heads down. But since the Financial Crisis, the mask has been slipping off.
Epstein stopped playing the game years ago. No surprise.
Even among the rich and powerful, Epstein was scum. His resume reads like a pocket history of the death of the American dream. He was a secondary school teacher who slithered his way into Bear Stearns, a famous home for arch-bastards. They made him a limited partner but he was too criminal even for Wall Street, and they banished him to the howling wilds like a hungry ghost.
Eventually, Epstein convinced Les Wexner to appoint him his right-hand man. After Wexner, Epstein went out on his own. The vampire lord spent the rest of his life hobnobbing with the Clintons and the Trumps of the world—a long, degenerate march across the decades, until he rendezvoused with a dark road in Manhattan last week. It was an ending straight out of a seedy pulp noir, and that’s all Epstein was, at the end: a shabby sex predator who should have been fed to 30-50 feral hogs. Until the facts have been untangled, so much is pure speculation. Occam’s Razor suggests Epstein was involved in something like Bernie Madoff rackets. Who knows?
In a larger sense, this single instant grows beyond Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein’s death, his great reckoning in a little room, is a defining moment of our time. The death of a crooked man in a crooked building under a crooked Justice Department under a crooked government has crystallized What’s Wrong With Us Now. It checks all the boxes, and raises every question, and the answers will probably never satisfy. Even if we should learn every fact, understand every angle, and know every quiver of Epstein’s web, the man’s ugly spirit will live on. This country was built for guys like Epstein, and did him the favor of looking the other way before justice could extract her price. The door to his cell will stay open. This case will never be closed.