Crime and Punishment: Boston News

Being old school, I still get most of my news from newspapers. For a long time now I have hardly glanced at so-called national news. Who wants to read about gridlock, which by definition is not news, because the story is that nothing is happening? I hardly look at international news either, for the opposite reason that it is too chaotic. So much is happening everywhere at once, and my ability to understand, much less intervene, in world events is so low that I can only try to get the basics. I prefer to turn to the topics of sports and art, where things are always happening, most of them comprehensible, and many of them interesting or even uplifting.

In the last week, however, I have been turning to news about crime. At this moment three of the most fascinating crime stories in the country have converged in Boston. South Boston mobster Whitey Bulger is sitting in a federal courtroom listening to FBI agents unveil him as a snitch as well as a murderer, while his lawyers try to defend him against the informing if not the murdering (except for the two murdered women, since killing them is also deemed dishonorable).

Marathon bomber Dzhobkhar Tsarnaev has just been charged with thirty crimes, including murdering four people. From what we know, he will apparently also be more intent on defending his reasons for doing what he did than in showing that he didn’t do it.

New England Patriot tight end (isn’t that a job description!—only now it is his former job) Aaron Hernandez has also just been charged with the cold-blooded execution of a guy he worried might snitch on him. The way that story is unfolding, New England’s legion of Patriots fans is going to have to rework entirely its perception of the last season. Collectively we will be reviewing the tapes to see a murderer loose on the field rather than a sports hero catching passes and making touchdowns.

Three tales of capital crimes, a trifecta of murder, all taking place in Boston at this moment: who could have made this up? The answer is — Dickens or Balzac, who might have woven the narratives together in a novel, or maybe in a trilogy, to portray Boston of the early 21st century, with old stories like Whitey’s converging with new ones like Dzhokhar’s and Aaron’s.

There are so many ways to mash them up to look for common themes and significant differences. I am especially intrigued by the geography of their lives in what we keep calling an age of globalization. Does Whitey’s story start in Ireland, or in mid-century Boston? Where does a story of migration begin and end, or does it end? That is the big question for Dzhokhar (pronounced much like Joker, if you haven’t noticed). He is from what historians used to call the Eurasian Heartland, the pivot of world history, back in the day when that was what people called global history. What is that heartland now but a seething cauldron of ethnic hate and dead-end misery, which Joker and his brother apparently exported to open-minded, welcoming Cambridge Massachusetts?

And where is Hernandez from? He seems to have spent time in Connecticut and Florida, but that doesn’t the answer the question of where he is coming from. He appears to have thought that the best way to hide his crimes was in the glare of publicity, so bright that no one would look for a murderer there. This was true even after, especially after, he destroyed another man’s face in a shooting six months ago, which somehow escaped scrutiny by team and fans alike.

Whitey went on the lam in the old-fashioned way, taking guns and girl to the other coast, successfully evading capture for 16 years. Dzhokhar evaded capture for less than 24 hours in a backyard boat. Aaron went the postmodern route, going on the lam in his own house, so used to being on camera that he recorded his own self-incriminating movements just before and after his latest crime on his own domestic surveillance system. The actual execution was carried out nearby in a so-called industrial park, which at this time in American history is going to be among the most sadly deserted of places in our wide and lovely land.

These stories are ones for the historian as well as for the novelist. They are criminal cases but not case studies. Case studies are episodes chosen to illustrate some larger point in the social sciences. If you try to study these stories as such, you could easily suck all the life out of them, because your focus would be on the larger point you had in your mind already (see: David Brooks). No, these are microhistories, where the macrocosm (the history of our time) is apprehended and understood through the microcosm. The pattern is fractal, or, as the poet wrote, in the butterfly’s wing he sees the mystery of the universe. This is news: in the microhistories of Boston crime, in the dreary wet summer of 2013, you see the larger story.

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