Friday, August 24, 2007

Sacco and Vanzetti, eighty years on

Yesterday, August 23rd, 2007, was the eightieth anniversary of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian anarchists charged with murder in connection with a holdup in South Braintree, Massachusetts.

Several years ago I gave a course at the Boston Center for Adult Education on "Italy in Boston." As part of the preparation, I naturally had to bone up on this famous instance of the Italian presence in our fair (sometimes unfair) city. These are my conclusions.

It is far from certain that the two men were innocent. Those who maintain their innocence state that the trial was vitiated by political motivations (anti-left, anti-anarchists). But it is also true that those making such claims tend themselves to fall into a certain political camp (anti-right, anti-establishment, anti-capital punishment, often anti-American). In other words, in these many decades, very few clear, unbiased heads have prevailed.

Our former governor, Michael Dukakis, proclaimed this day "Sacco and Vanzetti Day" in 1977, issuing what he called a "pardon" to the pair. I am by no means a judicial expert, but common sense tells me that if it is hard for the judge and jurors, who are present at the time of the trial, to determine the truth, this determination becomes impossible decades after the fact. The whole thing reminds me of those doctors who "diagnose" historical figures (George III- porphyria? Lincoln-Marfan's syndrome?). Futile and misleading. Let me add that Dukakis (who is not a bad guy) was up on his promotion (re-election as governor) and was probably courting the important Italian-American vote.

In other words, I know that I don't know, as another, wiser Greek said some time before Dukakis. What I do know is that these two men were no heroes and should not be idealized or held up as martyrs to justice. Incontrovertible evidence has it that they were not mild-mannered philosophical anarchists. They were known followers and supporters of Luigi Galleani, a distasteful immigrant subversive who advocated violent overthrow of government. Among his finest accomplishments was the production of the booklet La salute e' in voi (health is within you). Such a kidder, that Luigi. He penned this little manual on how-to-make-a-bomb with the help of chemist and explosives expert, Professor Ettore Molinari. Sacco and Vanzetti never disavowed their allegiance to Galleani, and even refer to him in their letters from jail.

Finally, over the years and continuing to the present, Italians have made much of this case as a symbol of American injustice vis-a'-vis Italians. Let me remind you that due process was had, and how. Due process is guaranteed by our Constitution (which the two men despised), a favorable outcome of that due process is not. It also strikes me that while this seven-year-long legal saga unfolded in Massachusetts, their native country capitulated to Fascism and its thugs. The Italians might do better to concentrate on this little injustice of their own making.

It is clear that the case still resonates, even more so in these times of threats from foreign subversives, divisiveness over immigration, controversy over capital punishment, and ongoing anti-Americanism. I see it as another opportunity to exercise what the poet John Keats called "negative capability," the ability to recognize a state of moral or intellectual tension for what it is, and not as something that can be definitively resolved.