Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Parsing Violence

As the world knew, the swearing in of the new Italian government in April at the Quirinale, the President’s palace, was brusquely interrupted by news of an attack at the Prime Minister’s office Palazzo Chigi. For a time, the city stopped as security measures went into overdrive. Then it became clear that there had been one lone gunman, Luigi Preiti, unemployed, with two broken marriages and a gambling habit. There were “only” two casualties, both carabinieri (one thankfully a superficial wound, the other risks paralysis). So the world and most of Italy too went back to normal and has forgotten the incident.

But even though Italy is a country where lethal (and non-lethal) violence is pretty low outside organised crime areas, the threat of political violence is never very far below the surface.

Three days after the Rome incident on 1st. May, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini was at Portella della Ginestra to commemorate the anniversary of the first massacre of the Italian republic. This is where 11 were killed and more than 20 seriously injured when Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on a traditional May Day trades union celebration. Giuliano was a young man who had become a bandit after killing two carabinieri who had stopped him for black marketeering. He then espoused the cause of Sicilian separatism – he hoped that Sicily would become the 49th state of the US. The mostly likely story behind the massacre is that Giuliano was manipulated by the mafia who were working with elements of the state. There are still more shadows than light and Boldrini appealed for a final truth on the massacre after 66 years as she laid a wreath.

In the 1960s, there were two attempted coups from the right and various forms of street violence from the left. The end of the decade saw the beginning of the terrorist phase, first from the right with bombs in Piazza Fontana (17 dead) in Milan in 1969 and ending with Bologna Station (85 dead) in 1980. The aim was to destabilise the country to create an environment where some sort of authoritarian government could be justified. There were links between them and maverick elements of the state but the institutions withstood the assault.

On the left, the Red Brigades, Front Line (Prima Linea) and various other groups kidnapped and killed, most dramatically, Aldo Moro but there were many others, trades unionists, carabineri and politicians; students were shot in the legs (studying business and therefore part of the capitalist system). They wanted to “colpire il cuore dello Stato” (strike at the heart of the state) and introduce some sort of Marxist-Leninist state. There, they failed but in their more modest aim to prevent any sort of alliance between the Christian Democratic party and the Communists, they succeeded. Their heirs continued into the 2000s killing academics and civil servants working on labour reform.

The mafia normally uses violence for purely commercial or tactical reasons; against business rivals or against overzealous police or judiciary but in 1993, they too used a more general type of political and terrorist violence when they put bombs in Florence, Rome and Milan.

More than a decade ago, the G8 meeting in Genoa was greeted with widespread street violence and the death of a protester. It looked as if Italy was moving towards a new season of political violence and possibly terrorism but 9/11 rendered the traditional Italian language unusable.

Briefly, in October 2011 there were again flames on the streets of Rome.

Violence which aims at changing all or part of the political system is no stranger to the country; it is a language which historians and older residents are sadly familiar with; we can read it and put it in an historical and political context.

But something has changed over the last year or so.

There is no sign of the recession coming to an end; unemployment, especially among young people (the most likely to turn to violence) is alarming. And yet what violence there is, is expressed in different terms.

The April gunman, Preiti, shot two carabinieri because he couldn’t find the politicians (any politicians) who he felt were responsible for his condition. He had no big plan, no ideology, and as far we know, no accomplices. His was an action which is much more familiar to Americans than Italians.

A few days ago a 17 year in Desenzano, on Lake Maggiore walked into school wearing battle fatigues and carrying his father’s shotgun in his guitar case. Luckily he was disarmed before he could do anything and it wasn’t clear if he was really going to use the weapon of if he just wanted to show off. But again, this was the language of Colombine or Newtown, not Lombardy.

In another resentment killing, two civil servants working for the Umbrian Regional government were shot by a local businessman three months ago. The man was owed money by the Region, he went to the office dealing with his credit, killed the two random employees and then killed himself.

There are protest suicides too, many of them.

A month ago, a couple of pensioners in Civitanova Marche killed themselves when they realised that they could not survive on her pension alone; the wife’s brother lived with the couple and when he found them, he threw himself into the sea and drowned. Three suicides in one of the most tranquil parts of Italy, a small town where everyone knows everyone and with a tradition of social solidarity.

Over the last year, there have been a number of businessmen committing suicide because they were failing or because they were not getting the support they felt they were entitled to. The latest was yesterday when a florist in Herculaneum covered himself in petrol, set fire to himself and then jumped from the balcony of the town hall.

All of these cases are a long way from revolutionaries from left or right, mafiosi or bent spooks killing to influence politics.

By now, these cases are statistically relevant though it is obviously not possible to say that one form of violence has substituted the other but something has certainly changed in the way violence is expressed.

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