nce a decade, like a rite of nature, the United States and Italy quarrel over an incident in which bad chemistry supersedes the rules governing rational policymaking and evidences the psychological, cultural and political differences between two nations.
It has happened three times, in 1985, 1998 — and now in 2005 with the ongoing controversy over the shooting death of Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari in Iraq.
But let’s backtrack.
In 1985, against explicit American wishes, Italian officials permitted terrorist leader Mohammed Abul Abbas Zaidan — who planned the Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking — to fly to Yugoslavia after U.S. Air Force jets forced a Tunis-bound Egyptian plane carrying him and the ship hijackers to land at the Signonella, Sicily NATO base. A firefight between Marines and Italian carabinieri was averted by an eleventh-hour agreement that gave Italy custody of the hijackers, but not Abul Abbas.
At the time of the incident, Palestinian terrorism in Europe was growing. Though a U.S. citizen was shot on the liner, the vessel was Italian and the siege had ended as a result of Italy working with the Egyptian government.
Then-Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a free market Socialist with strong ties to the Arab world, cited international law and Egyptian sensitivity in refusing to release Abul Abbas into American custody. Most public opinion polls favored Craxi’s actions by a large margin and Italian commentators raged at U.S. interference; how could Marines challenge Italians on their own soil?
Craxi’s improbable bravura briefly gave him the aura of a prewar nationalist attentive to sovereignty and unwilling to kowtow to foreign pressure (Craxi would soon lose his lofty status, his government exposed as among the more corrupt and fiscally irresponsible in recent years; he died in Tunisian exile.)
A kindred event came in February 1998, when a four-man Marine aircraft apparently flying too low and too fast severed a cable supporting a ski gondola in the Dolomite Mountains. Cut loose at 100 meters, the gondola fell into the valley below, killing the operator and 19 skiers, most of them Italians, Germans and Belgians. The minimum altitude for military aircraft was 600 meters.
The United States, citing NATO protocols, refused to allow the four crew members to face trial in Italian courts (“Nato per uccidere,” went a bitter slogan at the time.) Court-martialed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the pilot and navigator were acquitted on manslaughter charges, but dismissed from the military for more minor contraventions. In 1999, Congress rejected a bill that would have compensated the victims’ families, though the United States did pay 75 percent of NATO’s mandatory victims’ assistance.
The killing of Calipari by U.S. troops in Iraq last March is the latest episode to occupy this complex Italian-American hot zone. Calipari was escorting leftist journalist Giuliana Sgrena to Baghdad’s airport in an unmarked car when U.S. troops opened fire on the vehicle near a roadblock.
Though confirming the positions of either side is problematic at best — the United States contends the car was traveling too fast; the Italians that the shooting was unwarranted — Calipari’s death was met with the passion reserved for the events of 1985 and 1998. Italy gave him a hero’s funeral and many Italians were and remain convinced his death was not an accident, as American officials claim. Sgrena, who writes for Il Manifesto, an unabashedly anti-American newspaper, insists that the official U.S. version of events is a whitewash.
Sgrena has suggested — she is shrill and conspiratorial by training and tendency — that she might have been targeted for assassination by American soldiers because the United States opposes negotiation with terrorists. She has also stated that the road on which she and Calipari were traveling had no speed limits. The first assertion arises predictably from allegations that Italy paid a ransom for her release. But the speed limit remark is more intriguing.
A speed limit is a quintessentially Anglo-Saxon concept. Break speed limit laws in the United States or Britain and the punishment can be severe, including the revocation of a license. In Italy, speeding laws remain relative. Their enforcement is rare in areas not equipped with digital radar tracking and photography.
Similarly, arcane negotiation and incessant compromise are at the core of Italy’s social and political structure in a way that undermines Anglo-Saxon bluntness. Compromise in a Latin state is an imaginative, elastic, and dynamic process. It exists parallel to conventional state and local regulations and the rules of bureaucracy, which are dismissed sotto voce as inimical to all creative endeavors.
Italy is a state with anti-state tendencies. No rule, many Italians think, is so sacred that it cannot be adjusted to absorb the vicissitudes of the moment. No event is outside an Italian’s ability to shield from rules and laws, particularly if blood ties are involved. No authority that is not paternal or maternal is absolute. No conflict of interest exists so long as all sides are satisfied their needs are served.
Though Italy celebrates the enlightened rule of law, it paradoxically hails the cleverness associated with adjusting and modifying law under pressure. The tendency to sue for exceptions, when elevated to the context of state behavior, place Rome under a different social and political firmament than Washington, London or Berlin.
“Inferior” state status, and the impotence it implies, can also generate resentment. When cleverness goes awry and a happy ending is ruined — the case with Calipari in Iraq — mortification begets rage, and rage in turn provokes pathological finger-pointing. Disain grows when the “culprit” (often the United States) is portrayed as an ill-tempered bully. Inferior powers feel weaker when they can’t pick a fight with those they envy. They even more uneasy around an allied state that has the power to monopolize outcomes, which the United States is perceived as having done since September 2001. Worse still for critics, America uses disinterested apology to bypass accountability — George W. Bush twice regretted Calipari’s death, as if to appease Italian sentimentality. Charlie Chaplain identified this weakling nerve in “The Great Dictator” when his Benito Mussolini became pasta-chugging Benzini Napaloni, dictator of fictitious Bacteria. The pattern is cumulative.
Yet Italy has had its moments.
The dynamics of the 1985 Signonella episode — during the Reagan Administration — are instructive. Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and killed an elderly and crippled American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, tossing his body overboard. After three days, the terrorists struck a deal for their freedom and surrendered the vessel to Egyptian authorities in Port Said. Egypt placed the assailants and their mentor, Abul Abbas — who had not personally participated in ship assault — on an EgyptAir flight from Cairo to Tunis, PLO headquarters.
But American attack aircraft forced the Boeing 737 down at Signonella, where Marines demanded access to the hijackers and Abul Abbas. Craxi refused, sending an envoy, Antonio Badini, to broker the surrender of the four hijackers into Italian hands. They were later tried and imprisoned. Abul Abbas was allowed to remain on the Egyptian flight, which eventually landed in communist Yugoslavia (he died recently in U.S. custody after the invasion of Iraq.)
The Signonella deal was a psycho-political breakthrough for Italy because it touted small-player enterprise and thwarted a Marine Delta Team — the paradigm of virility — from imposing death-penalty militarism. The outcome, very much a Cold War vestige, hinged on persuading Washington that the storming of an Egyptian civilian airliner (Egypt was still early into its post-Anwar Sadat period) would enrage Cairo. Let Italy imprison the hijackers, Craxi said.
Signonella inverted American and Italian power roles, with shrewdness appearing to prevail over the bellicose U.S. model. Soon, however, Craxi found himself in political trouble among Italy’s pro-American parties. Ronald Reagan, privately enraged, lobbed diplomatic grenades. Craxi survived, barely, by making Napaloni peace with Reagan, whom he met in New York City. “I’m sitting here with my very good friend,” said Reagan, reveling in cheerful irony as only he could.
The Signonella outburst was swiftly reduced to cliché, a passionate Italian “outburst” contained and redirected by an American spanking. Craxi, once his own man, was a pet in what La Repubblica unkindly called the “House of Reagan.”
For Italians of the 1980s generation, Signonella was a case study in the glories and shortcomings of standing up to the United States. All glory would be short-lived, while the pitfalls stood to endure — and probably embarrass. (No surprise that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, then a businessman and developer, came into his own watching Craxi.)
Endurance is the burden of a subaltern state, wrote Machiavelli in reference to Italy’s city-states, and powerlessness a condition of that endurance.
Both conditions prevailed in 1998, when Italy was forced to confront another alleged American arrogance.
This time a Marine plane, an EA-6B Prowler, caused the perceived offense. Local government officials in Italy’s north had complained for years that U.S. military aircraft based at the Aviano NATO base used local mountain valleys as Top Gun amusement parks. Most Aviano pilots were bored, underused, and hadn’t seen combat (some would a year later over Serbia). Exercises over Italian territory were commonplace.
On Feb. 3, 1998, Marine pilot Capt. Richard Ashby — for reasons still unknown — flew the Prowler into a valley near the town of Cavalese. Court-martial prosecutors later argued Ashby was traveling low and fast, “flat-hatting,” or showing off in aerial jargon. The plane clipped the cable car wires, which Ashby insisted were not marked. He claimed no altitude alarm sounded to ward off his descent. The incident, he said, was a tragic accident — wording nearly identical to American explanations of the Calipari shooting.
Unable to compel the United States to acknowledge impunity, rhetoric swiftly took over. When Ashby and his navigator were acquitted on 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter, Achille Occhetto, a former communist, called the verdict “an act of arrogance and prevarication.”
Again, Italy was a bystander to the scheming of the powerful.
But the Cavalese incident overlapped the growing crisis in Kosovo and Europe’s inability to confront an in-house demon. Guilt about Kosovo tempered institutional anger at American irresponsibility. No one wished to alienate the nation that might, if pressed, intervene against Slobodan Milosevic, which it did belatedly.
The Cavalese cable car disaster juiced old resentments. This time, however, Italy embraced “speed limit” standards and used them to criticize a reckless foreigner. Here, Italy seemed to say, “You broke the law. You broke rules you believe in.”
Italian newspapers printed elaborate graphics to plot Ashby’s precipitous descent into the valley. The pilot mocked basic caution — never fly low in a populated zone — because European lives and local protests were irrelevant to the United States.
From the perspective of the Italian left, the incident fueled an irrational position in which the United States is identified as the most imposing rogue state ever to identify itself as a democracy. Its status as a World War II liberator is so unassailable that critics are reduced to tossing pebbles at a heroic pantheon well out of range. The United States — particularly since September 11, 2001 — exasperates morality because it occupies most of its definitions, including many shadings of force and compassion.
According to such put-upon logic, Signonella is the exception, Calipari the rule. A 2005 model of 1985 events would dismiss Craxi’s objections and free the Delta Force to attack. The Calipari debate shamelessly promotes the killing as a consequence of a bad war and new age Rambo-ism (ignoring that a battlefield checkpoint is a profoundly volatile place.) Bush apologizes now, as no doubt Reagan would have in 1985.
Calipari, the Unknown Soldier in an old debate, is a perfect Italian hero: a self-sacrificing individualist, an unassuming figure working effectively behind the scenes, and a brilliant miniature of all Italian enterprise. Such a figure enters hostile territory against the odds and fetches out a maiden in distress. And against the odds (perhaps bearing Judas funds), he succeeds. The success is critical because it momentarily reverses Italian skepticism, producing tears of joy.
Then, on the precipice of an astute achievement, Calipari is shot dead — by none other than Americans; Americans, managers of great secret services, who undo what they dislike or deplore; Americans who have all they need but share only when they wish. Free but dominant, Americans make up their own global speed limits, set their own rules and standards, conjure up their own exonerations.
Like Italians at home.
Cliché trifles with truth and objectivity. But look closely at the events of the last 20 years and you see two nations eager to behave as its servants.
— The author was an instructor in contemporary history at the University of Perugia between 1990 and 1992. He now lives in Chicago.