Pacifying Italy, but at what cost?

Ilaria Favretto considers whether justice was sacrificed to bring bloody civil conflict to a close

August 29, 2013

The late 1960s witnessed an extraordinary escalation of violence in Italy. Unrest by students and workers revived and fed neo-fascist violence. Segments of the extreme Left looked on the era as a “new 1922” – the date Mussolini seized power – but this time they were determined not to be caught unprepared. Throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s, hundreds of radical left-wing militants joined the armed struggle out of the conviction that a new civil war had started and that the time was ripe for revolution.

From 1969 to 1987, 491 people died and 1,181 were wounded at the hands of both extreme Left and extreme Right terrorist groups in Italy, and the heavy toll on human life in these decades resulted in the era being labelled the anni di piombo, or “years of lead”.

How did it all end? Was the disbanding of terrorist organisations the result of military defeat and repression, or did other factors facilitate collective and individual disengagement? Can the Italian case provide lessons and guidance for anti-terrorist strategies in other countries? Anna Cento Bull and Philip Cooke address these questions and more in a perceptive and insightful book that offers a welcome addition to a literature that to date has mostly looked at the causes and origins of Italian terrorism, and much less at its cessation and legacy.

The terrorists’ defeat was partly of their own making. For instance, the extreme Left Red Brigades’ murder of Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democratic Party, in 1978 and Guido Rossa, a Communist trade union representative, a few months later resulted in a loss of popular support and deep internal divisions, eventually contributing to the defection of several members. Contextual factors must also be considered, namely the demise of social protest and the general turn to the Right in the 1980s. Bull and Cooke have interviewed an impressive number of former right- and left-wing terrorists, whose “voices” are effectively and beautifully intertwined in the authors’ narrative. Some of these interviews convey very vividly the sense of defeat and the profound political crisis that many left-wing terrorists experienced in the 1980s.

However, structural factors were also at work. Bull and Cooke argue convincingly that the creation of a more “humane” prison system – including the Gozzini law of 1986 that provided work and holiday permits and a regime of semi-freedom to those who renounced terrorism – contributed significantly to the terrorists’ reintegration into society and disengagement from political violence. This will be food for thought for those who still see the US’ Guantanamo Bay detention centre as necessary.

Legislation passed in 1980 and 1982 that offered more lenient sentences in exchange for collaboration or “dissociation” from political violence also played a crucial role in ending the terror. These laws were highly controversial and many have doubted and challenged their morality. The doubts were all the stronger because those terrorists who had the most information to “exchange”, and so got away with the most significant reductions to their sentences, were also those who held the greatest responsibility for their organisations’ deadly attacks. For example, Patrizio Peci, a leading member of the Turin Red Brigades group, was arrested in 1980: thanks to his full cooperation with the magistrates, he was released after just three years in prison.

The “repentance” legislation has drawn particularly strong criticism from victims’ associations. In the second part of their book, Bull and Cooke discuss the limitations of realpolitik state measures. These were very effective in pacifying Italian society, but left some issues unresolved: for example, putting politics before justice or truth has militated against reconciliation as a wider social process. Unsurprisingly, the memories and narratives of the “years of lead” remain unreconciled. This will be a job for the next generation.

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