By Christopher B. Daly
In the end, the sentencing of James “Whitey” Bulger was oddly unsatisfying. Bulger – the lord of the underworld, the big man with the killer’s coldness, the guy who struck fear into so many for so long – left the public stage without so much as a whimper. Playing the role of a stand-up guy (or at least, his version of one) all the way to the bitter end, Bulger not only refused to testify, he also refused to even make eye contact with his victims’ families.
To make matters worse, Bulger committed one last robbery: he robbed all of us in the Boston area of the satisfaction of a real showdown with the forces of justice. Bulger should have been on the witness stand (and his testimony should have been on television), but he denied us that. It was a petty crime, compared to all his monstrous crimes against individuals, but it was one more shot at a public that grew tired of him long ago.
His trial over, Bulger will now spend the rest of his few remaining days in prison, where he belongs. So be it. I don’t believe in the death penalty on other days, and I will stick to my position on this one. I will not give Bulger the satisfaction of getting me to make an exception for him. I will choose not to sink to his level. (No more special treatment for you, pal.)
The whole process of putting Bulger on trial took so long that when the final stages unfolded in federal court last week, there was an odd quality of a formality about it. After all, Bulger’s capture took place more than two years ago. Ever since, it was more or less assumed that Bulger would be found guilty and given a life term.
Indeed, the thoroughly predictable and highly scripted process of a criminal trial was overshadowed this year by a lot of other local news of spontaneous origin. In April came the horrible crime of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which a couple of miserable losers decided to try to rob us all of something wonderful — the
spirit that always used to bloom in Boston on Marathon Monday, a mix of having fun and playing hooky and being nice to out-of-towners and trying to hurry spring along.
That was followed this year (simply in time, not in a great cosmic reckoning, as some would have it) by the quite unexpected rise of the Red Sox, who gave us something of a civic bouquet this year — not by winning the World Series, which was nice but a bit much. No, I think the Sox’ real gift to us this year came from seeing them having fun playing a child’s game as if it mattered and seeing them outperform expectations. All that, plus beards — what a treat.
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Yet, there is still some unfinished business in the Bulger matter. Whitey Bulger owes us all the answers that we didn’t get when he chose not to testify. He may try to tell his story – on his terms, of course, with a book or letters – but he should have had to sit in the dock, under oath, and face questions not of his choosing.
For that matter, his brother Billy (the former president of the state Senate) owes us some answers, too. What did he know about his brother, and when did he know it? Billy owes us these answers because he was not a private person all those years. He’s not in the same category as the third Bulger brother or their sister. No, Billy was at or near the center of public power during the very same years and in the very same city that Whitey was at or near the center of criminal power.
I will not compare or contrast the two brothers, except to say that as a journalist who covered Billy during that period and who often got the back of his hand, I believe that even rough justice demands that he give answers to the people whose money he spent and whose government he hijacked. No more of his grinning and winking and ducking. What did he know and when?
Other unfinished business?
There’s the FBI, for one. The agency has yet to offer a convincing explanation of how Whitey Bulger could have drafted the FBI’s Boston office into his protection racket or of how the agency is preventing a repeat by some other hoodlum.
Then there is the matter of how anybody could have fallen for the blarney that Whitey was a good guy who was keeping drugs out of South Boston or that Billy was a good guy because he gave away some turkeys at the holidays. Both of the Bulgers got too much power, and we are the ones who let them get away with it.
So, in the end, I suppose, the final reckoning is not with them but with ourselves. That’s a sentence with no parole, no appeal. In a way, we’re lifers, too.