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opinion | simon waxman

Beyond Bulger

The best revenge is noting how far Boston and Somerville have come

Somerville’s Freedom School is illustrative of a town that is no longer a parochial place in which mobsters could thrive.Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The auto shop on Marshall Street in Somerville where Whitey Bulger once made his headquarters is a church these days. You could ask everyone in town what they think of the mobster, and most would probably tell you they don’t think of him at all — because he and his Winter Hill gang are long gone, because they know his name but not his exploits, or because they’ve never heard of him in the first place.

With its young families, revolving cast of college students, and embrace of immigrants, Somerville has moved on. Thanks in part to concerted efforts to encourage harmony between new arrivals and longtime locals, it is no longer the kind of parochial town where a Bulger could thrive.

South Boston, where Bulger and many of his associates rose to infamy, is similarly new and improved, and the bad old days seem to be mostly the province of movies and memories.

For members of my generation, born in the 1980s, it is hard to believe that any part of the Boston area once housed the murderous machinery of organized crime. This is a good thing. It demonstrates just how effectively the mob has been broken in our city.


Which may lead some to ask why so much attention need be paid to Bulger now that the 83-year-old is at last on trial for his many offenses. Globe columnist and Whitey expert Kevin Cullen has suggested that the interest in Bulger only inflates his already considerable ego. Why not just peg him on a couple easy charges and let him stew in prison for the time he has left?

But retelling Bulger’s story, and forcing him to answer for at least some of his most heinous charges, is in some ways helpful and instructive.

It is helpful because it reminds us of the corruption that creeps into the institutions of justice and law enforcement, which are supposed to maintain public safety and discipline wrongdoers. To date only two of Bulger’s major accomplices, Stephen Flemmi and John J. Connolly Jr., have suffered in proportion to the damage they caused. Connolly’s FBI boss, John Morris — who, like Connolly, protected Bulger while he was allegedly murdering 11 of the victims he is now answering for — has never been punished. John Martorano, the hit man with 20 bodies to his credit, served only 12 years in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors.


And what we learn most poignantly from the Bulger trial is that while justice delayed is not precisely justice denied, it is justice diluted.

Victims’ advocates often speak of a need for closure, as though the conviction and appropriate punishment of a criminal will enable healing or, well, who knows what, really. Closure is a hard concept to define. It makes for decent rhetoric, but not much else.

What many victims and their families want from the justice system, as Thane Rosenbaum describes in his recent book “Payback,’’ is not so much closure as vengeance. Anyone who has been seriously wronged cannot help but feel a twinge of that forbidden desire, he writes. Rosenbaum is oddly exultant in this view, but he’s not wrong. When the urge to vengeance is denied, Rosenbaum contends, victims are left “forever resentful, untrusting of courtrooms, and unable to live with injustices that have only compounded the original injury.” Justice is arguably a programmatic approach to revenge.

There won’t be any vengeance for the victims in this case. At his advanced age, Bulger has in effect gotten away with his crimes already, much as Connolly’s FBI predecessor, Paul Rico, did. Rico died in jail at age 78, having served only a few months after a career spent exploiting his mob connections for illicit gains.

But even if a guilty verdict and life in prison for Bulger won’t do much for the victims at this stage, the trial, in its futility, reveals an essential component of justice. The lesson of vengeance is all-too-easily misread as cover for vigilantism, but without it we cannot account for and exercise wisely our most basic instincts about wrongdoing and punishment.


And it’s not all tragedy. Embedded in the gruesome details of the Bulger story is the more hopeful message about far the city has come.

Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review. Follow him on Twitter @simonwaxman.