The federal government might have James “Whitey” Bulger, 81, in custody, but Bulger, an alleged former crime boss accused of racketeering and involvement in 19 murders, has the FBI right were he has always had it: by the short hairs. It remains to be seen whether the feds will come to regret taking him off its Most Wanted list. Bulger was less a danger to society, and to the FBI, living quietly in Santa Monica than he is in custody. Yesterday, he had no incentive to fight back. Today, he has every reason to do so. So here’s a question for the Justice Department: How much truth do you think the American people can handle?
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: We get the government we deserve. We routinely tolerate government deceit, even lying, so long as we are not required to look too closely. Our government lies to us and calls it justice. We torture people but use other nation’s prisons, in a process made to sound as antiseptic as a government-certified meat packing plant -- extraordinary rendition. We grant broad immunities to police officers when they lie, falsely arrest and even kill people. Public confidence in the courts is low because the courts, well, the courts sometimes act as if judges were really capos calling the shots for secret bosses.
So who was Whitey Bulger? Was he the gangster the government alleges in its complaint, the ruthless former head of the Winter Hill gang in Boston, a man resorting to, well, lies, murder and conspiracy? If he was all that, then why did the government protect him for years? Was the FBI unable to distinguish between a gangster and a G-man? How are we the people to draw these distinctions?
The Bulger case presents an historic opportunity every bit as significant as was Church Committee’s report on the FBI, CIA and the so-called “intelligence community’s” abuse of the law during the cold war. Unchecked power corrupts, and lawmen, like anyone else, will take what does not belong to them if we the people and our courts let them get away with it. Even now, our government refuses in some prosecutions of suspected terrorists to turn over evidence if, due to “national security” concerns, such evidence would reveal too much about what our government is doing.
Bulger’s defense needs to be bold, aggressive and unsparing in the truths it insists be told in his defense. There are elements in the FBI who never wanted Bulger arrested. What he can tell the nation about law enforcement methods will shake the confidence of a public grown complacent by watching reruns of the thousand and one crime shows glorifying law enforcement work. The simple fact is that the government lies when it needs to, kills when it thinks it must, and then dissembles when confronted with evidence about its acts. And we let it, so long as we are not required to learn the truth.
Gerry Spence won the Ruby Ridge trial involving Randy Weaver’s shooting of FBI agents by telling the jury, methodically and with just indignation, about how lawmen had made a mockery of the law they promised to uphold. Weaver is free today because a jury could not trust a government that thought it all right to abuse the people it was created to protect.
That same defense is available to Bulger, and he has no choice but to use it.
People of color know all about pretextual stops on the streets, and lies told in courts of law by officers who think they are protecting us with deceit. Moslems know what it is to suffer a presumption of guilt when they bow to pray. The nation’s judiciary sits uneasily in courtrooms granting immunity to government actors that the Constitution never foresaw. Government is becoming detached from the great mass of Americans, the other America of busted hopes, foreclosed homes, and a bleak future. A handful of Americans live the dream we once all took for granted: increasingly, government becomes the security force for the privileged, a praetorian guard loyal only to the highest bidder. Whitey Bulger can shake that edifice if he so chooses.
Bulger is no populist. I get that. But does anyone believe that he lived in plain view in Santa Monica for 15 years and no one in the government knew about it? (Note the parallel to Osama bin Laden’s “hideout” among the affluent next to a military base in Pakistan.) I suspect that truth is that Bulger is a pawn in a power struggle in the FBI. The old guard wanted to pension him off, to let him die in obscurity so that he would never tell inconvenient truths. A new guard is seeking power. It will use Bulger to embarrass the old guard. Careers will be made, reputations burnished, by the prosecution of Bulger. The most dangerous men in America aren’t men like Whitey Bulger. They are federal prosecutors hoping for headlines so that they can, some day, become a federal judge.
Bulger can beat this case by exposing the government’s hypocrisy. Did he kill? If so, why did the government let him? Did he extort? Who in the government assisted? Was he an organized crime boss? Just how different is that, from the perspective of the other America, the America of those dispossessed and forced to the margin, than the acts of the FBI?
I’m loving the Bulger case. I’m waiting for hard truths to be told in open court. And I’m willing to bet that with an aggressive defense, the government backs down. Why? Because if there is one thing the government does not want a jury to know, it is the truth about what law enforcement is willing to do to get what those in power want. If we knew that, we might just turn the whole rotten pyramid upside down, a prospect too terrifying for those growing comfortable while the rest of us struggle.