The Wrong Targets

Many of the Italian political extremists who spread death and terror in the 1970’s and 80’s have been reintegrated into society. Indeed, some relatives of their victims claim that society has shown more concern for the ex-terrorists than for them. Occasional pamphlets and one killing in 1999 are the only evidence that terrorists survive; but because terrorism has become a worldwide threat, it is worth asking why it emerged in Italy, how it was beaten and what were its consequences.

The kidnapping in 1978 of Aldo Moro, who had been three times prime minister, culminated years of terrorism. Moro was more adept at inventing formulaslike parallel convergences, to reconcile verbally political groupings that remained incompatiblethan he was at vigorously pursuing governmental programs. In other words, he was better as secretary of the ruling Christian Democrat Party than as prime minister. Although this gentle, melancholy Southerner was personally honest, like many Italian politicians he had a Signor Fix-It collaborator who ensured funds were available for Moro’s faction of the Christian Democrat party. Few questions were asked about their source. As a university law professor in Rome, he was liked and respected, but his governmental policies were controversial. Admirers saw him as farsighted; critics complained that he would negotiate with the devil.


In 1962 he had convinced his party to collaborate with the Socialists, which led to a series of center-left governments. But the Communists’ good electoral performance in 1978 forced him to go further. Under his auspices, a minority Christian Democrat government was formed with parliamentary support from Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats and Republicans. He considered this the only way Christian Democrats could maintain their central role. He was to make a parliamentary speech justifying the Christian Democrat-Communist agreement the morning he was kidnapped and his five-man escort killed. After being held in a secret people’s prison in a Roman apartment for 56 days, he was shot around the heart. His corpse was left in the trunk of a Renault parked near the headquarters of the Communist and Christian Democrat parties.

For the Red Brigades who killed Moro, a Communist-Christian Democrat agreement represented a Communist sellout. The kidnapping arrested the drift towards an alliance, but the terrorists aimed at more, trying to blackmail the government into releasing 13 imprisoned terrorists in exchange for Moro. They wanted recognition as an armed party. They despised Italian institutions as spineless, but, despite discord among its components, the government neither succumbed nor split.

The kidnapping of Moro and his subsequent trial at the hands of the brigadists were in part a response to the trial in Turin in 1976 of Renato Curcio, the Red Brigades’ founder, and 48 other brigadists. The brigadists temporarily stopped the trial by killing the president of the Turin bar association, Fulvio Croce. Understandably, dozens of citizens then refused jury duty, for the implication was that the brigadists would kill any lawyer, magistrate or juror who dared judge the self-appointed representatives of the proletariat. Eventually, however, all Turin lawyers made themselves available, a judge refused to be intimidated and, most significant of all, jury members were prepared to risk their lives by sitting in judgment on the brigadists, who were eventually convicted.

The brigadists intended Aldo Moro’s trial to be an example of proletarian justice in contrast to the Turin court’s middle-class justice. When the government rejected their demands, the terrorists might still have released Moro. As he himself argued in the unsuccessful pleas he made for negotiations in letters he sent while in captivity, once back in Parliament he could have been an embarrassment to his colleagues. Instead the brigadists killed him. This caused dissent in their ranks.

More important, the Moro exploit was a hard act to follow. The symbol of the Christian Democrats and their regime had been destroyed without achieving anything in exchange. For the terrorists, their exploit turned out to be like punching a mound of whipped cream. It left them in an impasse. Even as Moro’s bullet-ridden body was found, it was clear that the terrorists would not prevail.

How had terrorism acquired such virulence? Italy was a chronic case of political stagflation: an inflation of short-lived governments and a pervasive sense of stagnation. There had been a series of coalitions but never a real choice between alternatives. The Christian Democrats always ruled with various partners or none.

Because the Communist and neo-Fascist parties were not considered acceptable in government, about a third of all voters were never represented there. The Communists advocated class struggle but also aimed at a coalition with the Christian Democrats. As the Communists edged toward social democracy, some frustrated true believers decided to act on the revolutionary rhetoric.

Rightist extremists also had a revolutionary reference point: the violence that had facilitated Mussolini’s access to power. Initially, leftist opinion attributed all violence to the neo-Fascists and later tried to justify leftist violence as a response to that of the right. In a sense, leftist and rightist extremists were continuing the civil strife that ensued after Italy switched sides during World War II. But in another sense, they were united in an onslaught on parliamentary democracy. They were presented as the opposite ends of the spectrum, but the further they went, the closer they came.

Because of radical chic, initially many regarded the terrorists as Robin Hoods who were exacting rough justice; and even when terrorist brutality was patent, some washed their hands of the issue, professing themselves neither with the state nor the terrorists.

A demagogic reform had opened universities to all without providing adequate facilities. In education, political criteria prevailed. University students insisted on group oral examinations, in which they decided the grades. Some medical students even refused to discuss gout during examinations, regarding it as an affliction of the affluent. Secondary school students would interrupt lessons for political meetings in which the most ideological prevailed. At all levels, cunning teachers allied themselves with overbearing students.

Many who were taught that all social structures were merely conduits for institutionalized violence considered it justifiable to overturn them by greater violence. Some sociology graduates, in particular, believed they had found out how to smash a society that had hoodwinked them by providing useless degrees. There were a few hundred full-time terrorists, but thousands more sympathizers engaged in minor lawbreaking (such as proletarian appropriation, to use their sociologese for stealing from shops), spread terrorist propaganda and paraded through cities wielding iron bars, giving a gun signal salute, overturning and burning cars and complaining the while against brutal police repression. Subtle distinctions were made to justify terrorism: its practitioners were assassins but not criminals, not terrorists but merely using violence for political ends.

In 1972 five members of the Red Brigades, which had been founded three years earlier, seized Idalgo Macchiarini, the director of the Milanese Sit-Siemens telecommunications company. They hauled him into a van, photographed him with a gun pressed against his cheek, subjected him to a people’s trial and then released him. The whole operation took 20 minutes. The photograph they took of Macchiarini had in the background a banner with a five-pointed star, which, newspaper readers were informed, was the symbol of the Red Brigades. It was a great coup at a time when several nascent extremist groups were competing for adherents.

The leftist extremists’ aim was to strike one to educate a hundred. For each person they hunted down, trapped running for shelter and kneecapped or killed, scores more were educated by threats that they would receive the same treatment. One of their allied radio stations, Sherwood of Padua (the name shows the founders thought of themselves as Robin Hoods), broadcast veiled threats against uncooperative university lecturers, which were followed by death sentences spray-painted on walls. The first few on the lists were shot; some of the remainder did not sleep at home for years.

I lived at the time, as I still do, outside walled Rome in one of a cluster of apartments occupied by many Italian journalists, who are among the world’s best paid. Some who were leftists maintained a resentment against a society whose comforts they enjoyed; their children were prolific writers of terrorist graffiti. One such neighbor was the first journalist to be killed by terrorists. The shock made his left-wing extremist son change his outlook.

My son was attracted by the Communists while in secondary school, but after attending a local Communist branch meeting, he concluded that they intended to exploit students. My daughter was attracted by the neo-Fascists. Fortunately she saw, just in time, that what seemed merely an exciting game could be lethal. Some of her schoolmates were not so fortunate. One involved in right-wing terrorism was questioned for hours by police before being released. Shortly afterward, as he was getting into his car, he was called by name and, when he turned, was shot through the forehead by a fellow extremist, who suspected he had ratted. Leftist terrorists shot in the back of the neck a distant relative of mine culpable of designing modern prisons, which, in the assailants’ opinion, prolonged an unjust system by ameliorating it. The bullet lodged so near the brain that he suffered fierce headaches for the next 20 years.

Terrorism was a rising tide, lapping slogan-daubed houses. But while leftist terrorism was didactic, aimed at selected categories, such as magistrates, journalists, prison officials, police and industrialists, right-wing terrorism spread fear indiscriminately. It aimed at the gut rather than the head. Its preferred method was bombs in crowded places such as bank squares or the Bologna railway station, where 80 people were killed in an explosion.

Many terrorists seem to have brainwashed themselves by rehearsing slogans about the ills of society. Then they became immersed in hairsplitting debates about difficult moral decisions, but within a context where everything was justified if politically useful. This was evident in the gobbledygook they spoke when tried. They had the greatest difficulty in calling a spade a spade or a killing a killing; rather, it was expressing violence.

Before becoming full-time terrorists, they were blooded by participation in a shooting or armed robbery used to obtain funds. Their victims were considered symbols of the enemy, but the shock of passing from theory to action jolted some terrorists out of their word-prison. Their humanity stirred, and they realized they were killing not symbols but people.

But once blooded, many were trapped, because they were in danger of death if they betrayed the group. Some condemned terrorists confessed relief at being in a real rather than a verbal prison, freed from the hell of groups where personal rivalries were indistinguishable from quarrels about ideological nuances.

The brigadists compared themselves to wartime resistance heroes, but as their killings produced no results and the state gradually gained efficiency in identifying them, morale sagged.

Courage like that shown by those who tried the Red Brigades in Turin contributed to the defeat of terrorism, as did the inertia of many seeking a state job, who enrolled in the police even though they were terrorist targets. The eventual social reintegration of terrorists was aided by the forgiveness they received from many relatives of victims. A notable case was that of the family of the prominent Catholic Vittorio Bachelet, a law professor who was assassinated at La Sapienza University in Rome. His Jesuit brother, Adolfo, devoted the rest of his life to aiding imprisoned terrorists, including the assassins of his brother.

As terrorist morale declined, some became police informers or state witnessesa new figure in the Italian judicial system. They were to prove useful also in combating the Mafia, although the law about them was subsequently found to have serious shortcomings.

Another judicial effect of the fight against terrorism was that although Italy did not become a police state, doubtful repressive measures were accepted. In 1979 a Communist magistrate of Padua imprisoned a large group, some linked to Sherwood Radio, on charges that included involvement in the killing of Aldo Moro. The most prominent of the several university lecturers included was the political science professor Toni Negri, later condemned to 30 years imprisonment and recently co-author of the best-seller Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001). Many of the charges could not be proven, but key ideologues who, at the least, created a favorable climate for terrorism were temporarily put out of action.

This risky method (I-know-they-are-guilty-even-though-I-cannot-prove it) was used in the 1990’s against politicians and businessmen suspected of corruption. Thrown into prison before trial on the grounds that otherwise they could flee or tamper with evidence, they were released only when they disclosed information, usually against others. It broke the bonds among the corrupt but also brought a backlash against the magistrature when some of the imprisoned committed suicide. Such draconian methods point to the shortcomings of a cumbersome investigative and judicial system.

The years of terrorism flushed out extremists from the far left and far right parties who dissociated themselves from it. But the Christian Democrat-Socialist-led coalitions went on a spending spree after the defeat of terrorism as if they had come to the conclusion that, if the terrorists could not shake the regime, nothing could.

It needed the fall of the Berlin Wall, an economic crisis and exposure of corruption in the Christian Democrat-Socialist parties before the ex-Communist and ex-neo Fascist parties were able to enter governments and alternation in power finally became possible. As my car mechanic commented when terrorism faded, The Red Brigades’ mistake was to kill the wrong people.

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