Aaron Hernandez and the dark side of ‘Boston Strong’

The big murder trial that’s been obsessing Bostonians has ended with a guilty verdict. No, you’re not having déjà vu. Wednesday’s jury decision came in the case of Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star tight end.

Hernandez was convicted of murdering Odin Lloyd, a semiprofessional football player who was also dating Hernandez’s fiancée’s sister. Although the motive remains shady, it seems possible that the 2013 murder was connected to the still unresolved criminal charge that Hernandez killed two other people the year before – strangers who accidentally insulted him in a nightclub.

If that charge also turns out to be true, then Hernandez killed almost as many people as the Tsarnaev brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago. Because the Tsarnaevs’ crime was terrorism, they also permanently injured many more people, and their subsequent actions led to a multicity lockdown that involved hundreds of thousands. The crimes therefore aren’t precisely analogous.

Yet there is an uncomfortable and complicated relationship between the two cases and their chronologically twinned trials. Both in different ways forced Bostonians to think the unthinkable: that homegrown terrorists could be nurtured in our midst, and that the athletic heroes whom we worship could actually be sociopathic killers. Both of these unthinkable thoughts go to the core of what gives Boston its distinctive identity in the early 21st century.

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The lurid details of Hernandez’s murder of Lloyd are almost beside the point – what matters is the scale of Hernandez’s apparent appetite and capacity for shooting people. From the trial we know that Hernandez was out with Lloyd, and apparently on friendly terms, only a few days before the killing. Something caused him to turn on Lloyd and arrange to murder him. That something was never explained during the trial, but the most logical explanation would seem to be that he thought Lloyd knew something or might be prepared to say something about the double murder with which Hernandez is separately charged.

In that other episode, prosecutors allege, Hernandez became enraged after a man in a nightclub accidentally bumped into him and caused him to spill a drink. Hernandez then lay in wait outside the club. From his SUV, prosecutors believe, he shot two men, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, immigrants from Cape Verde who worked as house cleaners, killing them both.

In yet one further incident between the two slayings, Hernandez apparently shot an acquaintance in the face in Florida, injuring but not killing the man. The acquaintance testified at Hernandez’s trial for the Lloyd murder.

This conduct seems more like it would come from Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger than an admired athlete. And this is where things get symbolically complicated. Hernandez played a season for the Patriots between the nightclub killings and the Lloyd murder. Unaware of his crimes, we, or at least I, happily cheered for him on the field. Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, who also testified at the trial, used to kiss Hernandez when he would run into him socially.

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It would be easy to say that we Bostonians aren’t implicated in Hernandez’s crimes, because we were ignorant of them. But that seems much too easy. The problem isn’t just that Hernandez had a modestly checkered past as a college player at the University of Florida, where he was questioned in connection with a shooting and got a deferred prosecution after a bar brawl. The Patriots under Bill Belichick have a well-known record of hiring formerly troubled players who then play well and live as good citizens.

No, the problem lies in the depth of identification that a true Bostonian feels with his or her athletic heroes. In Boston, perhaps more even than in other American cities, our sports teams provide the social glue that holds a diverse city together. Our admiration has become a crucial component of our civic identity.

This more-than-adulation of our athletes was on view after the marathon attacks. The “Boston Strong” motif was worn and recited by citizens proudly wearing Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots gear – literally the uniforms of our civic belonging. By far the most effective public spokesman for Boston in that post-marathon moment was Red Sox great David Ortiz, who memorably declared in front of a capacity crowd at Fenway Park that “this is our [expletive] city.”

What if it had been Aaron Hernandez who had said that? My point isn’t to insult Ortiz, who seems to be a good guy, notwithstanding being mentioned in a New York Times article as having tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. My point, rather, is that we Bostonians confer leadership on our athletic heroes, not just admiration. The Hernandez conviction reminds us of the uncomfortable fact that this is an arbitrary, indeed somewhat childish thing to do. All we know about our sports heroes today is that they are supremely excellent at what they do.

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Let me be clear: I root for the home teams with the intensity of a Boston lifer. I love it when they win, as they do now +with somewhat astonishing frequency, at least relative to my childhood.

Yet the Hernandez conviction tells me that I blindly rooted for and identified with a murderer, maybe even a mass murder. And I did it as a Bostonian, in the exercise of my civic pride. This is, or should be, deeply discomfiting. A bit like knowing my city can produce jihadi terrorists. At some point, collective pride must generate some collective responsibility. To have one without the other is to be, well, a bit of a child.

Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard and the author of six books, most recently Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.