The big murder trial that's been obsessing Bostonians has ended with a guilty verdict. No, you're not having déjà vu. Wednesday's 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 and also injured many more people, the crimes aren't precisely analogous.
Yet both cases in different ways forced Bostonians to think the unthinkable: that homegrown terrorists could be nurtured in our midst, and that our athletic heroes could actually be sociopathic killers. Both of these unthinkable thoughts go to the core of what gives Boston its identity.
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 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 he shot and killed Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, immigrants from Cape Verde who worked as house cleaners.
In another incident, Hernandez apparently shot an acquaintance in the face in Florida, injuring the man. The acquaintance testified at the 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 used to kiss Hernandez when he would run into him socially.
It would be easy to say that we Bostonians aren't implicated in Hernandez's crimes. 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 troubled players who then play well and live as good citizens.
No, the problem lies in the depth of identification with athletic heroes. In Boston, our sports teams provide the social glue that holds a diverse city together. Our admiration has become a crucial component of our civic identity. We confer leadership on our athletic heroes, not just admiration. The Hernandez conviction reminds us that this is an arbitrary, indeed somewhat childish thing to do.
The conviction tells me that I blindly rooted for and identified with a murderer, maybe even a mass murderer. And I did it 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 is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.