On June 13, 2012, The Boston Globe gave ample space to the coverage of an event that took place in federal court here. Judge Douglas Woodlock sentenced Catherine Greig to eight years in prison for the crime of harboring a fugitive. The fugitive is James “Whitey” Bulger, who was once a prominent figure in the Irish underworld of Boston and is now in prison awaiting trial for miscellaneous crimes, including nineteen murders. Greig was his “girlfriend” (though the term seems a bit odd – she is now 61 years old; he is 82). Greig was not charged for participation in any of the crimes allegedly committed by Bulger. She was in hiding with him for sixteen years. The couple was finally arrested last year in Santa Monica, California, and extradited to Massachusetts.
Since I assume that there are readers of my blog who do not closely follow events in Boston, let me briefly give some background: Bulger was head of a criminal syndicate centered in South Boston, a onetime solidly Irish neighorhood known affectionally as “Southie” to its residents. Already as a teenager he belonged to a street gang called “Shamrocks”, from which he graduated to a more serious criminal career. He spent several years in prison. In the 1970s, after a peace agreement with rival (mostly Italian) gangs, he became head of the afortementioned syndicate. It engaged in extortion, drug trafficking, gambling. Violence (some of it executed by Bulger in person) was routinely inflicted on anyone who challenged or betrayed the syndicate. At the same time, Bulger served as an informant for the FBI, in which capacity he directed the FBI against (mainly Italian) rivals. His main FBI contact tipped him off about an imminent arrest, which started him out on his years of flight. In all his activities, he was careful to shield South Boston from heavy drugs and other criminal activities, and was generous to locals loyal to him. In the neighborhood he was looked on as a kind of Robin Hood. He and Catherine Greig became lovers when she was in her twenties and after a divorce. She too had grown up in South Boston and was working as a dental hygienist.
At the sentencing session of her trial, Greig did not speak and showed no emotion, except for one moment: Relatives of Bulger’s victims were allowed to address the court; I don’t know whether this legal provision is to influence the judge (who by then must have made up his mind) or (more likely) to provide some sort of satisfaction to relatives of victims. Some of these, looking directly at Greig, passionately attacked her. One of them referred to the fact that one of Greig’s brothers had committed suicide, and added “If I had a sister like you, I would have killed myself too.” At that moment only Greig covered her mouth and cried. Woodlock seemed shocked, and characterized some of the comments as cruel and concerned with vengeance rather than justice. (I wonder what he expected.) Kevin Reddington, Greig’s lawyer, said that the only crime she was guilty of was that she loved Bulger and stood by him (he even referred to Shakespeare’s sonnets). He is appealing the sentence. Greig has refused to collaborate with Bulger’s prosecution, although this would clearly improve her situation. Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor (who had asked for a sentence of ten years) countered the lawyer by saying that what was involved here was a crime, “not a romantic saga”. The Globe editorial spoke of “a tough but fair sentence”. Kevin Cullen, a columnist, praised the sentence as “a lesson in civics and justice”. As of this time, there have been no interviews with the “Irish street” in South Boston (a demographic, incidentally, which does not often read the Globe).
In recent years South Boston has undergone considerable gentrification. But when Jimmy Bulger and Catherine Greig were young, it was still a mostly intact ethnic enclave, dominated by traditional virtues with loyalty to “one’s own” high on the list. People were inspired not so much by an abstract system of ethics than by a code of honor, which was very concrete in terms of whom it did and did not pertain to. Greig certainly lived by a very strong sense of loyalty to the man who was “her own” more than anyone else. Even if one would stipulate that Bulger was guilty of all the crimes he is charged with, he too had specific loyalties – presumably to his lover and his family (two brothers, one a prominent state politician, admitted to having spoken with him after his turning fugitive), and his neighborhood (he dealt in drugs, but he did not want them in South Boston – reportedly he did not allow drugs to be sold to children and he did not deal in hard drugs). While his and other gangs readily used violence when deemed necessary, loyalty to one’s own gang was very much a matter of honor. In this, the Irish gangs of Bulger’s world resembled the Italian Mafia, with its code of omerta and a primitive version of “just war theory”. Such codes and indeed the concept of honor itself strike us as “old-fashioned”. So they are. Modern notions of ethics and law are distinctively abstract.
On the same date on which the Globe covered the sentencing of Catherine Greig, The New York Times carried a short follow-up piece about another trial, that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The story concerned reports that Mubarak’s health had seriously deteriorated and even that he was close to death. The facts in this matter, I would think, are more widely known than sagas, romantic or otherwise, from the Boston underworld. All the same, I will briefly sketch in the background: After his fall from power Mubarak withdrew to an estate belonging to him on the Red Sea. He apparently turned down opportunities to go abroad. He was subsequently arrested and charged with complicity in the killing of protesters by security forces during the uprising which ended with his overthrow. The prosecutor asked for a sentence of death by hanging. Mubarak’s health deteriorated rapidly after his arrest and, rather than being kept in prison, Mubarak was confined in a relatively comfortable military hospital. He appeared for his trial carried on a stretcher and placed inside the courtroom cage (which, it seems, is the standard Egyptian equivalent of the British prisoner’s dock). In June 2012 he was sentenced to life imprisonment and was sent directly to a much less comfortable prison. Mobs in the street clamored for his being put to death. It is reported that after that both his physical health and his spirit declined sharply.
The United States government was asked by the new Egyptian authorities to freeze all of Mubarak’s assets, which was promptly acted on. There was no other American word or deed concerning what was being done to Mubarak. The relevant point here is that, whatever else he was as Egypt’s dictator, Mubarak was an ally of the United States for many years. He could be counted on as such in many issues in the Middle East, most importantly in keeping the peace with Israel and assisting in the campaign against Jihadist terrorism. There is no doubt that Mubarak’s record on human rights (let alone democracy) was less than edifying, though greatly more so than that of Qaddafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria – not to mention that of Saudi Arabia, the other reliable ally of the United States in the Arab world. Whether out of cold political calculation or because of the desire of the Obama administration to curry favor with the “Arab street”, Washington almost overnight decided to abandon an ally to his enemies. One does not have to be an idealist to think that loyalty to an ally is a necessary principle in the relations between states, for practical if not ethical reasons. In other words, if there is honor among thieves, there is also some honor at least among states (and for pretty similar reasons). The record of the United States in this regard is quite dismal. The most comparable case is the refusal to admit the deposed Shah of Iran to enter this country for medical treatment. There are, alas, several other cases in recent decades: The abandonment of the Hungarian rebels in 1956, after the Voice of America had spurred them on. There is the scene of the last helicopters leaving the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975, leaving behind thousands of supporters to the tender mercies of the Vienamese Communist regime and (worse) of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. There was the abandonment to Saddam Hussein’s vengeance of the rebels in the south of Iraq after American troops pulled out after the First Gulf War in 1991. It remains to be seen what will happen in the wake of the ongoing American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.
I would not want to be misunderstood here. I have no wish to pass moral judgment about either American law or American foreign policy. I have many criticisms of the legal system in this country, beginning with the barbarity of capital punishment. If accused of a crime, I would still prefer to be tried here than in many other countries. I also think that, on balance, American power in the world has done more good than bad. Every imperial state (and this is what the United States has been since World War II) is under the constraints of Realpolitik more than a small state – whom could Liechtenstein abandon? Nor am I assuming here that the three individuals involved in the above cases are innocent of any wrongdoings, though in Greig’s case I am inclined to think that the threat of a long prison sentence was used to force her into testifying against Bulger (a common if distasteful practice of prosecutors). What concerns me here is that two arms of the federal government, the Department of Justice in Greig’s case and the Department of State in Mubarak’s, have shown no respect for loyalty nor practicing it in their own actions. In one case, abstract law triumphed over honor, in the other case state reason over honor. The prosecution of Greig once again shows up the shallowness of the boast of the rule of law over the rule of men. We need law in a society of strangers where we must constantly deal with people under abstract rules, but this is an unfortunate necessity, not a virtue. As any candid lawyer will tell you, the practice of the law has little to do with justice. The state, even the most humane one, must at times act in morally unacceptable ways. Perhaps the American stance toward the fate of Mubarak is a case in point of this Machiavellian insight.
Sometimes – not very often, but sometimes – dishonorable deeds are punished in this world rather than the next. The Egyptian revolution has not yet played out, and American enthusiasm for the events on Tahrir Square may turn out to have been sadly misplaced, if an Islamist winter should follow the Arab spring. If so, one will be able to recall what Joseph Fouche, the wily head of the French police, said when in 1804 First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte summarily executed the Duc d’Enghien on trumped-up charges: “It was more than a crime; it was a mistake.”