JANUARY 19, 1996
DAVID GERGEN: Willie Bosket, born in Harlem just after his dad had killed two men, a young man of near IQ genius level, age of nine locked up by the juvenile authorities, age fifteen killed two men himself, now, in his early thirties, considered the most violent criminal offender in New York State history, Hannibal Lecter some call him. You've spent some 200 hours now preparing your book, Talking to Willie. Who is the man you found behind the headlines?
FOX BUTTERFIELD, All God's Children: What was surprising was to find that a man who is as articulate and charming as he is, when he's also so incredibly violent. Even as an adult in prison,he went around stabbing guards, and so the prison system actually has had to design a special wing of the prison just for him.
DAVID GERGEN: And where did all the violence come from, in your judgment?
FOX BUTTERFIELD: Well, when I started the story, I, I found out that his father had also killed two men, and then I discovered that his grandfather had been a violent criminal and the great-grandfather, going back to a county called Edgefield, in South Carolina, had also been anotorious bad man at the turn of the century. So I began to trace the family back in time to this one county which historians have long known was one of or perhaps the most violent county in the country. In fact, it used to be called "Bloody Edgefield." Its murder--
DAVID GERGEN: It's just up the Savannah River.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: It's just across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia in up-country South Carolina. It had a murder rate in the 19th Century higher than that of New York City today, although as a small, rural, cotton-growing county, a typical crime--I tell one story in the book by a man named J. William Thurmond, who was the local prosecutor or district attorney, and he was sitting in his office, and one day, a man came by and started insulting him, calling him a damned dog and a scoundrel and a liar. Thurmond got mad, and he reached into his jacket pocket and, like a lot of Southern gentlemen, he had it tailored for a pistol, he pulled out his coat revolver and shot the man dead. And when Thurmond was put on trial, even though he was a district attorney, but he was acquitted in 35 minutes by the jury because he said this was a matter of honor. After this, the Senator from South Carolina, "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, a famous character in Southern history, went to the President of the United States because he felt sorry for Thurmond and got him appointed U.S. attorney for South Carolina. And he was the father of Strom Thurmond.
DAVID GERGEN: The current Senator from South Carolina.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: The current Senator.
DAVID GERGEN: And the point you make in the book is there was that tradition of honor, of defending one's honor, and they grew up in the white community. A lot of Scotch-Irish came into South Carolina, just came into the South.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: This very high homicide rate, all the way back in the 19th Century, doesn't make any sense according to our modern explanations of crime, because it didn't come from cities. It didn't have anything to do with race or with poverty or the broken family, or with television, so I had to look for another explanation, and it seemed to grow out of white Southerners called honor or reputation, the notion that you derived your worth from the opinion of others, so that if somebody insulted you, said something about you, you had to take personal physical action.
DAVID GERGEN: And the slaves who lived in that society, who then after the Civil War largely became sharecroppers, they picked up that same code. They learned from the white community.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: They learned that code and particularly, they found themselves outside the law. They couldn't go to court to seek redress because the courts were controlled by whites, the sheriffs, the police, the judges, and the juries, and in Willie Bosket's family this very specifically happened. His great-grandfather, a man named Pud Bosket, was a sharecropper in the 1890's,growing cotton on a white man's land, but he got tired of the white farmer whipping him, the vestige of slavery, so one day when the white farmer went to whip him, he turned around and grabbed the whip out of the white man's hand and he said, "Don't step on my reputation." There was this notion of honor, or what today we call "respect," and kids in the inner-cities call"dissing," disrespecting.
DAVID GERGEN: And what you're arguing is that that tradition has passed down in the black community from one generation to the next, but it also, what struck me about your book was, as opposed to the usual suspects we find as causes of crime or homicide, say poverty, economic issues, lack of jobs, drugs, what have you, you really--I was surprised to the degree to which you felt that the tradition of violence was passed down from father to son, father to son.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: Yes. And this was a big surprise for me. Willie, when he was a young boy,he didn't know exactly what his father had done, and his mother tried to shield him from the terrible secret that his father killed two men. But one day he saw on his grandmother's dresser a picture of a man in prison uniform. And he asked who it was, and his grandmother said, "That's your father. He killed two men. He's in prison. And when you grow up, you're going to be just like him." And Willie took that in a way as a mark of, of honor, of status, that his father had committed this worst of all crimes.
DAVID GERGEN: It sort of made you the baddest man on the street.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: It made you the baddest man on the street, and so he went around telling his teachers and his playmates, he said, "Don't mess with me. My father was a killer, and when I grow up, I'm going to be just like him."
DAVID GERGEN: But it was one of the only things he had to hang on to.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: It was. It created his identity, and interestingly, the same thing had happened with his father before him. His father early on knew that his own father was a, was acriminal, and tried to model himself on that. I think we all know that if your father is a doctor orlawyer or fireman or policeman, you're likely to go into their line of work. What doesn't occur tous, because we haven't had that experience, is if your father is locked up in prison, you may, you find that a powerful, if perverse, attraction.
DAVID GERGEN: So how many people would you say there are in prison today who have--related to others who have been--and their family who have been in prison?
FOX BUTTERFIELD: It's an incredible number. Among, among juveniles who are locked up, it'sabout 50 percent of all kids nationwide who are locked up who have fathers or other close relatives who've been in prison.
DAVID GERGEN: And they in some ways have idolized them and then tried to follow them.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: And they have taken this as some kind of a model.
DAVID GERGEN: In many ways, while the story was a depressing one of the Bosket family down,you know, violence down through four generations, violence that goes way back into our history,I also found that there was hope in your book because it, you related the fact that society, human society, western society, has, in fact, over some centuries, has actually made a lot of progress against violence. I was surprised--I did not know that in medieval times, the day of Chaucer, the homicide rate was 10 times what it is today, and that in the 16th and 17th centuries and on through the Industrial Revolution, in fact, one saw gradual progress.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: Right down into the 1960s, really. I mean, the biggest change occurred inthe late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this country, we know that the homicide rates in all ofour big cities actually went down for a good hundred years from the 1850s into the 1960s.
DAVID GERGEN: Which means, it can, you can do it?
FOX BUTTERFIELD: You can do it. If we can identify those social forces which are at work and recreate them, we can bring homicide rates down. There's nothing fixed in human nature about murder.
DAVID GERGEN: So when you look at the Willie Bosket case, and you look at the tradition in his family, what kind of solutions would you come to? What do you think then? If it's not poverty necessarily, are these other usual suspects that are the heart of it, what do you think we ought tobe doing?
FOX BUTTERFIELD: One thing certainly we want to do is try to teach these kids not to fall intothis notion of dissing or disrespecting. We've got to learn that you can develop your respect orhonor from within, not from the opinion of others. So if somebody says something insulting about your girlfriend or your sneakers, you don't react violently.
DAVID GERGEN: So you have a sense of dignity?
FOX BUTTERFIELD: You have a sense of dignity. Exactly. And there are some good programs now in schools around the country that are trying to teach this. Another thing that we have to learn is that this--all of these problems start very young, start within the family. And I think criminologists have learned that really by the age of six or seven, first or second grade, is the key turning point. And so we need to get kids when they're very young, and we need to bring in their parents and work with them too. One of the things that we're learning is we, we've always tended to believe that parenting is some how a natural skill, that you're born with it. In fact, it's something that if you're lucky you learn from your own parents, if you have good parents, but if you don't where the heck do you learn it from? So there are now some programs starting to teach programming or family skills, and just very simple things that wouldn't occur to us that are important, just like to monitor your children, to know where they are at all times, who they're playing with, whether they've got a gun, whether they've got drugs. These, these are skills that can be taught.
DAVID GERGEN: Once they get, once they reach the age of 15, 16, 17, and they've become violent, is there much hope then of rehabilitation?
FOX BUTTERFIELD: It's very difficult. The figures on rehabilitation are not very hopeful. You've really got to get these kids younger.
DAVID GERGEN: So by the time a Willie Bosket gets into the prison system as an adult, having killed a couple of people, it's really very difficult then to reach him?
FOX BUTTERFIELD: Well, one of the things we know is that everyone who goes on to become--every kid who goes on to become a juvenile delinquent, every delinquent who goes on to become a violent adult, they started very young, at this age of six or seven. That doesn't mean that everyone at the age of six or seven who gets in trouble becomes an adult criminal. There are a lot that are able to, to stop, but that nobody starts becoming a violent criminal at the age of16 or 25.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. So really that comes back to the family.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: It comes back to the family, absolutely.
DAVID GERGEN: Okay. Thank you very much.
FOX BUTTERFIELD: Thank you.
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