Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Creating Monsters

Children are often warned about creating monsters, usually in the context of spoiling someone to the point where he thinks he can get away with more than is allowed. Typically, the means of spoiling are rather benign – too many sweets or poor discipline resulting in bad diets or social ostracism due to bad behavior. As adults, the threat of spoiling others is no less real but the consequences are more devastating than the effects of too many chocolates. The film Black Mass, an adaptation of the life of Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger while he was an FBI informant, illustrates the reality of creating monsters on several levels.

The film starts in the 1970s, when Bulger was already an established crime leader in South Boston, heading the Winter Hill Gang. That he had a penchant for crime is unquestionable, although at this point he is seen as a somewhat sympathetic character – he helps elderly women and is a doting father. He has experienced time in prison, which appears to have made him tougher and better suited to lead a criminal enterprise. He has also established a network of trusted associates with whom he shares an increasing affiliation as the depth of his organization grows.

At the same time, the film presents the character of John Connolly, who grew up in South Boston with Bulger before parting ways to join the FBI. Years later, Connolly returns to Boston, this time as a FBI agent. Part of his portfolio involves investigating a rival gang to Bulger’s – neither Connolly nor his fellow agents have a great deal of success in doing this. There is an initial tension between Connolly’s professional life and personal life in terms of past associations with Bulger and continual loyalties to those with whom he grew up.

After failing to infiltrate the rival gang through other methods, Connolly devises an unusual plan for gaining information– co-opt Bulger as an informant. Initially, Connolly’s superiors are reluctant to embrace the use of a known crime leader, particularly when this could lead to them having knowledge of Bulger’s illegal activities but being unable to doing anything based on the agreed upon terms of the informant relationship. Ultimately, the combination of a lack of success through other means and Connolly’s persuasion convince his superiors to use Bulger as an informant. Bulger is at first somewhat uncomfortable with the concept of being an informant since he does not tolerate “snitching” from within the ranks of the White Hill Gang. However, seeing the utility of the arrangement in terms of eliminating a rival, Bulger crafts a justification between informing on his own people and informing on others for the benefit of the White Hill Gang.

Bulger becomes a productive source of information and Connolly is able to use this to further his cases and career. As the information provided by Bulger becomes useful he becomes emboldened, knowing that he has great value to Connolly. At the same time, Connolly and those around him become increasingly amenable to overlooking illegal activities on Bulger’s part – particularly murder, which was strictly forbidden under the original agreement – because of the value of his information. The film depicts a shift in Bulger’s operations from relatively minor to a massive criminal network that operates across other states under the protections afforded by the informant arrangement. At the same time, Connolly draws closer to Bulger and his lifestyle, collecting kickback money, traveling with Bulger and his associates, and adopting a different persona – this is visible to the audience and to Connolly’s wife, an outsider to South Boston who seems to provide a check on Connolly’s growing inability to draw a line with his informant. Even this relationship is shattered, as ultimately Connolly and his wife separate in large part due to his personal and professional involvement with Bulger.

The relationship between Connolly and Bulger continues with few internal institutional checks. There is, it appears, a laissez faire attitude toward the symbiosis that has been created and many are willing to look the other way as long as the arrangement produces successful outcomes. The amount of grey area amassed around the arrangement is thus quite large. This changes when a new Assistant U. S. Attorney questions the true value of Bulger’s information. With stunning rapidity it becomes clear that Connolly has been passing off old or irrelevant information from Bulger as important tips and falsifying other information. In the aftermath, Bulger is publicly exposed as an informant and a wanted criminal and goes on the run for decades. Connolly is arrested. In the end, the informant relationship takes all involved down with it.

In film and in fact, there is no question that Bulger was involved in criminal activity before he became an informant. In this sense, the monster created was not pure to begin with. However, as the film portrays it, Bulger had completed his prison sentence and was working marginally far from the law before the informant relationship developed. Prior to the informant relationship, Connolly is portrayed as a rising star within the FBI.

At the beginning of the informant relationship there was a nexus in needs – Connolly and the FBI needed information and Bulger needed immunity and freedom to develop his organization. Both Bulger and Connolly knew that they were violating some element of the core tenets of their organizations – informing for Bulger and condoning criminality for Connolly – but the benefits appeared to outweigh these issues. It is clear that Bulger and Connolly were operating in a space that was outside the rigid confines of the law – a fact that eventually brought the relationship down – however each believed that they were doing what was necessary to protect their organizations and further themselves.

The risk of creating a relationship that functioned in the grey areas of law – be it statutory law or the code of an organization – was worth the reward and there were certainly rewards to be had for both parties. In this way, the informant relationship functioned symbiotically – each party can be seen as creating a monster in the other through the informal mechanism that was achieved between them. Perhaps obviously, Connolly creates a monster in Bulger by empowering – and encouraging – him to engage in criminal behavior under the cover of providing vital information. What is perhaps less obvious is that Bulger created a monster in Connolly by encouraging him to condone and indeed be a party to criminal activities knowing that Connolly could hide under the cover of his official status. Through the use of informal understandings of the relationship that were allowed to function outside of the formal law per se, all parties to the relationship were “spoiled” in a sense, and all parties became monsters as a result. In this instance, however, the result was far greater than a stomach ache from too many candies.

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