“Saint Valentine is a third-century Roman saint associated since the High Middle Ages with a tradition of courtly love.” It wasn’t exactly courtly love that four members of Al Capone’s Italian South Side gang had in mind when they lined up seven members of Bugs Morans’ Irish North Side gang against a garage wall at 2122 North Clark Street and opened fire 85 years ago today. The St. Valentine’s Day massacre, fought to control the bootleg liquor business, is Prohibition’s defining event. It’s an era we tend to glorify, filled with wonderful names (“Machine Gun” McGurn, Antonio “The Scourge” Lombardo, “Hop Toad” Giunta), although it was marked by murder, political corruption and income inequality (Capone made $100 million a year).
Nor did Ayatollah Khomeini seem in a loving mood 25 years ago when he issued his fatwa on Salman Rushdie for blaspheming Mohammed in Satanic Verses. That too led to a massacre, the Sivas Massacre, in which 37 people, primarily artists and writers, were incinerated when zealots set fire to their hotel.
Prohibition was the result of American fundamentalists trying to impose their personal morality on an unwilling people, who defied the law and eventually overturned it. Khomeini’s fatwa took things to a new level by making murder the goal, not a byproduct, of fanaticism. Like his predecessors, from Claudius (who beheaded Valentine for protecting persecuted Christians) to Stalin, he achieved his goal by making most of us afraid to speak out.
The heart is the source of love and courage. Happy St. Valentine’s Day.