The Common Good

Family Values and Murder: The Trial of Whitey Bulger

“Family and friends come first,” the witness said in court. “My father always taught me that. The priests and the nuns I grew up with taught me that. They taught me that Judas – Judas was the worst person in the world.” If you have not been following the Boston trial of Whitey Bulger, you might easily imagine that this quote was taken from divorce court, maybe a custody trial. The witness might be trying to paint his spouse as an adulterer, a Judas if you will, in order to bolster his or her claim to a bigger share of the settlement.

Josh Greenstein / Flickr.com
Media prepare for Whitey Bulger's arrival at Boston courthouse in 2011, Josh Greenstein / Flickr.com

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It’s not a bad strategy. No one likes a snitch, and many of us know from experience that betrayal is a rotten thing to endure. In hurt and anger we may even have condemned our betrayer as a Judas, if only under our breath. But what if I told you that the witness was a convicted murderer, a mob hit man from the Boston underworld, who was using the Judas analogy to justify his actions? In the 1970s and ‘80s, John Martorano killed 20 people – to his mind, Judases – for “noble purposes:” to protect family and friends from being hurt or double-crossed. He claims never to have enjoyed killing, not like a mass murderer. “I didn’t like risking my life,” he explained under oath, “but I thought if the reason was right, I’d try.”

Yikes.

It’s one thing to justify a grab for resources in a divorce court or even a custody battle. But it’s another thing altogether to use betrayal and an appeal to family values to justify murder. Or is it another thing altogether? I wonder. Though Martorano is an extreme example, he is doing something we all do regularly to some degree: we justify our bad behavior, including violence committed on our behalf, in the name of goodness.René Girard’s mimetic anthropology argues persuasively that the category of “good” violence was the clever invention at the origin of ancient sacrificial religions.

Have you ever wondered how people in the ancient world could so gullibly believe that the gods would be appeased by the sweet aroma of a sacrificial fire? Girard makes it possible for us to see that the gods are not figments of the archaic imagination, but a consequence of the discovery that a little bit of violence can contain an outbreak that could destroy a community. Today we call the phenomenon scapegoating, and we see its effect when a community or nation unites against a common enemy. All conflicts and differences melt in waves of group solidarity or patriotism. Good violence — that is, violence directed outside the community — is what protects the community from bad violence, the kind that infects us from within. In fact, Girard claims that the gods are violence itself and are indeed appeased by the blood of a victim. To this day, the blood of scapegoated victims continues to appease the gods of violence.

Martorano’s ability to commit violence without ever doubting his own goodness is a direct result of this sacrificial phenomenon. If we think that he is uniquely susceptible to it, that we do not succumb in the same way to the temptation to justify ourselves and our violence, then we are either sadly mistaken or should be celebrated as the Second Coming. Betrayal triggers unreflective retribution from the personal level all the way to the top of the ladder of social organization. Defense of family and friends is the ultimate justification for punishment, expulsion, torture, invasions, even worldwide surveillance operations, which perceive bad violence to be lurking everywhere. The ability to self-justify is so keenly developed that for 2,000 years we have twisted the Judeo-Christian revelation of the complete non-violence of God to our own violent purposes.

Look, if you think of yourself as a good person, you would be wise to take Martorano’s testimony as a warning. Goodness is a minefield, littered with pitfalls because we too easily turn our goodness into an idol. We worship and preserve it so completely that, like Martorano, we cannot imagine that anything we do could be anything but as completely good as we are. This is the blindness that afflicted Tony Soprano (played by recently passed actor James Gandolfini) in the popular HBO series, The Sopranos. The show brilliantly asked us to identify with Tony as a good family man and loyal friend but then, by allowing us to get to know his victims, begged the question of how much evil goodness can tolerate and still be good. And if you felt a bit uncomfortable by Martorano’s appeal to family values, if it sounded alarmingly like something you might once have said to justify your actions and condemn another’s, then good for you. It’s only when we begin to perceive our failings that we can admit our guilt and see how much we ourselves stand in need of forgiveness. The irony is that the possibility of leaving good violence behind for good can only be made possible by people who admit just how bad they are.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

Image: Media prepare for Whitey Bulger's arrival at Boston courthouse in 2011, Josh Greenstein / Flickr.com

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