Do not envy Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He’s got a multifront war to fight, and it is not at all clear that he’s got the troops with which to do it. His political party, the Freedom People, swept into power with what seems to be a solid majority, and even his opponents expect this government to serve the full five years. He promised Italians that he would bring order to replace the extraordinary (even by Italian standards) confusion of his center-left predecessors, reduce taxes, and impose decent security in cities increasingly characterized by petty crime, hooliganism, and violence of all sorts, ranging from the European plague of drunken soccer fans picking fights with anyone in uniform, to xenophobic eruptions against illegal immigrants, many living in shanty towns on the outside of major cities like Rome, Milan, and Naples, and finally to the scourge of organized crime, especially the Neapolitan camorra (mafia) and the ‘ndrangheta (gangsters) in nearby Calabria (the Sicilian mafia has been badly weakened in recent years and is much less of a threat to law and order). Security always trumps more abstract political issues, and if Berlusconi’s going to succeed he’s got to get a grip on these matters.
This is certainly not the longstanding stereotype of Italy, the land of the sweet life and charming people, but it’s what they’ve got nowadays, and in private conversations over the past month I learned that most Italians want Berlusconi to act quickly and forcefully, even though the chattering classes continue to preach soothing multicultural sermons. And the symbol of the security problem, from illegal immigration to organized crime, is Naples, which has dominated recent Italian news with two dreadful stories: the mountains of garbage in the streets (a problem intimately connected to the camorra), and a brief eruption of vigilante attacks against the gypsies who have set up camps around the city.
A few days ago, a gypsy girl was caught running down the stairs of a suburban apartment, carrying a newborn baby girl in her arms. The mother screamed, the neighbors appeared, the gypsy was surrounded, and the police had to save the kidnapper from a lynching. Within hours, the gypsy camp was targeted with Molotov cocktails by young men on motorcycles, and most of the gypsies — most of whom had come from Romania — were forced to flee. In succeeding days, the papers were full of stories with headlines like “So they DO steal children,” citing official sources to confirm the age-old belief that the gypsies not only traffic in little children, but also force them to beg and steal on behalf of the tribe.
The fate of the gypsies understandably provokes a lot of passion; after all, they were sent to the Nazi death camps along with Jews, people with birth defects, political foes of the Third Reich, and homosexuals. Given the simplistic, politically correct, one-page version of the history of fascism (fascism is bad, is right-wing, defends the status quo, and is racist, while antifascism is good, is left-wing, calls for revolution, and is super-tolerant) that is presented to most European students nowadays, it is easy to understand why Spanish socialist politicians would righteously denounce an Italian government that has called for tougher measures against illegal immigrants. And yet, it’s a real problem, and, with the exception of Eastern Europe, very few countries have attempted to integrate the gypsies, or even to pass laws in favor of common education for gypsy children. The European parliament recently granted all of one minute to a Hungarian liberal deputy to discuss the matter.
There are between 12-15 million gypsies in the 27 countries of the EU, and of these, a mere 200,000 are in Italy. Eighty thousand of them are legal Italian citizens, having fled from oppression, starvation, and unemployment in their “home” countries. Most Italian-based gypsies have been in the country for years, if not decades, and rarely have family or friends back in Romania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, where most of them started their wanderings. They need education, protection, and discipline, but these are in short supply in today’s Europe. The new government is unlikely to launch a major drive for assimilation, and will deal with the issue as part of the overall security problem.
Italians are relatively free of chauvinism, and the eruption of violence against the Neapolitan gypsy camp is best understood in the context of the city’s other intimately related main problems: the garbage crisis, and the power of organized crime.
The garbage crisis is an old one, and is part and parcel of the city’s history. Naples is famous for filth and disease, having endured many infamous episodes of plague and cholera, and Neapolitans have seen several failed efforts to “modernize” the many slums in and around the town. Fifteen years ago, putrid black water started flowing from faucets in two of the poor neighborhoods, producing a public outcry that led the central government to take the extraordinary step of firing the city council. A few months later, the left-wing reformist, Antonio Bassolino, was elected mayor on a platform of clean hands and urban renewal. Alas, if anything, the Left has been even more corrupt than its predecessors, and Bassolino, now the president of the region around Naples, has become the universally despised symbol of that corruption. Mounting evidence of collusion with the local mafia and his manifest inability to cope with the garbage crisis (even after being granted extraordinary authority and billions of euros by the Rome and European governments) ended the dream, and he will spend many hours facing criminal charges in the years to come. He’s even lost his political touch: At the height of the recent garbage crisis, with uncollected bags of refuse piled high all over town, local papers showed a picture of Bassolino’s street . . . clean as can be. It’s hard to find a Neapolitan who will admit to voting for Bassolino in the last election.