JAMES “WHITEY’’ Bulger’s capture vindicates a multimillion-dollar FBI manhunt that doubled as a search for redemption for the agency that protected him for years. At 81, Bulger is getting his comeuppance at a late date, but not too late to matter. It sends the necessary message that one cannot expect to flee justice forever, and that punishment will be visited on the deserving, even if they are old or sick.
Bulger’s offenses — the 19 documented murders, the drug dealing, the businesses lost to relentless shakedowns — are monstrous. No amount of finger-pointing, whether at his FBI enablers, or rival gangsters, or those who aided his flight, can diminish his culpability. Like most gangsters, his currency was fear. His sheer brutality, and his neighbors’ awareness of it, was the source of his power. All who felt that fear, in neighborhoods throughout the city, were his victims.
During his 16 years on the lam, while outsiders became entranced by the real-life gangster story, Bostonians understandably grew weary of hearing about all those now-legendary wars among ethnic gangs to control the streets. Those fights were already over by the ’90s, when federal prosecutors effectively ended the North End mob and slowly began to zero in on Bulger.
But if there’s a lesson for all of Boston in the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger, it’s that his story, while incredible, isn’t entirely unique. Divisions among neighborhoods and ethnic groups create the conditions that allow gangsters to flourish. With new immigrants coming in and clustering in certain areas, there may well be more clashes of loyalty, more turf fights, and, potentially, more gangsters.
Long before he topped the most-wanted lists and winked down from movie screens with Jack Nicholson’s grin, Bulger came of age in the housing projects of the 1940s and ’50s. Broken down, divided along ethnic lines, mired in a competition for political spoils from an ever-diminishing pool, Boston was in tough shape. And Bulger took advantage of it.
He claimed to be protecting his neighborhood, even though the bodies washing up on local beaches hailed mostly from his own precincts. He got away with it in part because some felt he was a bulwark against outside rivals — from the Mafia in the North End to African-American gangs in Roxbury.
Too many Bostonians of that era believed that their futures would never expand beyond the dimensions of their neighborhoods, that every block was a stake worth fighting for. A need to take care of one’s own, and never to forget where you came from, became articles of faith in some neighborhoods. Politicians lived off them. And they were manipulated by Bulger and others, such as mob boss Gennaro Angiulo, to exploit the very people they were pretending to protect from rival gangs and outsiders.
Now, Boston can close the book on the Bulger era, and it should end the pathologies that fueled Bulger, as well. As new groups make their homes here, Boston can’t accept tribalism as an organizing principle. It can’t allow future gangsters to exploit divisions to create a culture of violence and fear.
And while time and legend may soften the images of the Bulgers and Angiulos, Bostonians should not forget their realities: the lives lost, the hopes snuffed out, the urban fabric torn to dust. Hopefully, Whitey Bulger will die in prison, far from a Boston that looks and feels nothing like the one he held hostage for so many decades. That will be Bulger’s greatest punishment, and Boston’s sweetest revenge.