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Putting a fine focus on Sacco and Vanzetti

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco as they appeared in 1923, on the 25th day of Sacco's hunger strike. Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco as they appeared in 1923, on the 25th day of Sacco's hunger strike.

Mobs stormed the US embassy in Paris, venting anti-Americanism, while Britons mounted equally angry if peaceful protests. Elsewhere, people pouring out their rage at Uncle Sam clogged streets from Marrakech to Sydney.

You already knew the Iraq war set the world against us? But the global dam-burst described above happened eight decades ago, with the executions in Boston of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants convicted of gunning down two payroll clerks while stealing money for the proletarian revolution. With the 80th anniversary of their deaths in the electric chair coming up Aug. 23, Massachusetts journalist Bruce Watson's engrossing retelling doesn't present new evidence to alter history's verdict -- which, unlike the jury's, remains uncertain as to the duo's guilt.

"Sacco and Vanzetti" is relevant not because minds have changed, but because the times have. Or rather, they've come full circle. Now as then, an American decision has outraged the world. In the Jazz Age, it took just two deaths, not scores of thousands from war, to inflame opinion. But there is a commonality between our era and then: Sacco and Vanzetti's case burned atop the combustible matter of terrorism and a resulting phobia about immigration.

Watson does a fine job setting the scene. In 1919, the year before the murders, an anarchist group hatched "the broadest assassination plot in American history," mailing 30 bombs to high-ranking American officials. Though one maimed maid was the sole, inadvertent victim, the attempted mass bombing and a second one a month later unhinged a nation already frazzled by a recent world war that had redrawn the global map, a deadly flu epidemic, and cultural shocks such as the new ban on alcohol. "By the dawn of 1920," Watson writes, "the average citizen faced a nation he did not recognize in a world he did not know. And under Prohibition he could not even order a beer and laugh about the changes. Given the uncertainty, scapegoating was only natural."

To generations of supporters, Sacco and Vanzetti became the most celebrated scapegoats, swept up in a xenophobic hysteria and convicted of murder on flimsy evidence. Readers familiar with the case will know that the truth was murkier. Both men supported violent revolution if necessary; they were members of the cell that sent the mail bombs. On the night they were arrested, both were "armed to the teeth." They claimed to be merely collecting incriminating radical literature, yet they'd tarried in that effort for five days after Vanzetti was tipped to possible imminent raids by the authorities. A ballistics test tied Sacco's gun to one victim in the payroll heist.

And yet: Witnesses could not agree on whether Sacco and Vanzetti were at the scene. Both had accents, but bystanders insisted the robbers had none. Witnesses said one victim had been shot by a single gunman, yet the deceased took four bullets, only one of which was traced to Sacco's gun. Finally, there was real prejudice against both anarchists and Italians, many of whom were derogated as "dagos." With some people theorizing that only one of the accused was guilty, Watson concludes that reasonable doubt should have entitled both to a retrial.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression hit, and "in the America of soup lines and hobo jungles, Sacco and Vanzetti were just two [Italian immigrants] who got in a jam during a distant era called the Twenties." Artists and intellectuals kept their cause alive. Watson's balanced book makes it unclear whether they were guilty or innocent. It's also unclear, in this Gitmo era, whether we've learned that justifiable outrage against terror can cross the line into prejudice that tramples rights.

Contact Rich Barlow at barlow81 @gmail.com.

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