Books: Cultural Amnesia — Virginio Rognoni |
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Virginio Rognoni was born in Corsica in 1924. A student of law and a practising lawyer after World War II—the period in which the new democratic Italy was transforming, sometimes insufficiently, the embarrassing inheritance of the Fascist legal system—he rose to prominence as professor of institutions of civil procedural law (a typically Italian mouthful of an academic title) at the University of Pavia. In 1968 he was elected to parliament as a Christian Democrat. After the kidnapping and eventual assassination of ex–Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) in 1978, Rognoni was put in charge of the Ministry of the Interior, his chief task being to defeat the terrorists. The job took him five years, and produced enough dramatic action to keep the Italian movie and television industry supplied with plot lines until the present day and presumably beyond. At the time, however, the tension was all too real. Neo-fascist bombers got into the act on their own account and the legal system looked like an unarmed prophet. But Rognoni’s chief triumphs were in court. Historians from either wing generally agree that the Red Brigades were finished from the moment that the American General James Lee Dozier, whom they had taken hostage, was recovered alive in 1982. After his success against the terrorists, Rognoni went on to a number of political posts, the most important of them concerned with legal reform. His effectiveness as vice president of the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura (Superior Council of the Magistracy) can be argued about indefinitely by sceptical critics of Italian politics, who suffer from no shortage of subject matter, those on the left always able to detect the hand of the CIA, those on the right always alert to the revival of Communist subversion in a new disguise. But nobody can seriously deny that Rognoni played the crucial role in confronting a genuinely dangerous threat to democracy and neutralizing it by reasonable means. Right-wing theorists continue to believe that there was a terrorist mastermind (“grande vecchio”—grand old man) who escaped. Left-wing theorists continue to believe that the terrorists were right-wing agenti provocantori. Sensible people prefer to concentrate on what Rognoni thinks of the matter. Luckily his opinions, closely allied to his vivid memories, are available in print, providing a crucial text for all humanist students beginning to grapple with the question of how a liberal democracy can maintain its integrity when forced to defend itself against misuse of the freedoms it exists to cherish. Since Lincoln himself wondered aloud how a state dedicated to liberty could be strong enough to protect it, there is no blame attached to not having a ready answer. As Rognoni found out, however, the answer is, or had better be, there within ourselves, waiting to be discovered. When faced with an ideology of opportunist violence it helps to have some principles in advance, before the pressure of events starts reinforcing the idea that expediency might be a principle in itself.

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In whichever way a democratic system might be sick, terrorism does not heal it, it kills it. Democracy is healed with democracy.

IN ITALY, THE publishing firm Laterza puts out an attractive series of booklets devoted to interviews with leading cultural, scientific and political figures: Alberto Moravia, Gianni Agnelli, Enrico Fermi, Federico Fellini and many more are among my own collection. To the new student of Italian, I can recommend the series as an autostrada into the culture. You can hear the language being spoken at its top level, and the subject matter is real: sometimes all too real. This interview with Virginio Rognoni is one of the best. He had impeccable credentials to pronounce the opinon quoted above. As minister of the interior between 1978 and 1983, Rognoni was the man on the spot in the period the Italians still call gli anni di piombo—the years of lead. It was a period in which the extreme right and the extreme left staged a shooting and bombing competition which held the spectators on tenterhooks, because they were among the targets. As the death toll mounted, Rognoni was under tremendous pressure to arrogate emergency powers to himself: not least, of course, from the terrorists, who would have liked nothing better than for the state to adopt illiberal means. Rognoni resisted the temptation and settled in for a long battle. The blessed day when a full thirty-two leaders of the Red Brigades were sent to gaol—it was Monday, January 24, 1983—happened on his watch. Terrorism in Italy wasn’t over, but its back was broken. Rognoni, a prime target himself, had done his job. Though he was accused by the left of pursuing left-wing terrorists harder than he pursued right-wing terrorists, the facts prove his neutrality. He was a good Catholic, but so were plenty of the terrorists, even among the Marxists. His enemy was not the left, but terrorism tout court, which he, better than anybody, knew was cherished by many of its adherents as an end in itself, rather than a means to justice. In other words, evil had become a career for the otherwise unemployable, and there would be no end to it unless it was stopped.

Accusations of police torture were frequently made, but Rognoni sounded convincing when he rejected them. Occasionally he could not reject them, and had to explain. He said that some agents had got angry because of atrocities and had exceeded their authority. That sounded convincing too. The impression he gives is of a man to whom terrorism was so repugnant that the planned use of counter-terror to fight it would have been inconceivable. We can safely draw a clear line between him and the “dirty war” caudillos in the Americas: sadists who, when it came to leftist insurgency, had no other idea than of getting their frightfulness in first. What we have to ask ourselves is whether Rognoni’s attitude to terrorism makes sense as a universal principle. It certainly made sense for Italy, which, however sick (malato) it might have been, was a functioning democratic system. The Brigate Rosse, if they had had their way, would have converted their country from a producer of wealth, however badly distributed, into a producer of poverty. But it isn’t hard to name countries, calling themselves democracies, in which injustice, to the idealistic young, seemed so deeply institutionalized that terrorism occurred to them as the only workable response. They might have been wrong. They might have done better to choose exile, or direct martyrdom. (When they were detected, they were martyred anyway.) They were bound to find themselves among strange bedfellows. It takes a very confident onlooker, however, to suppose that he could never have found himself harbouring the same impulse. One of the strengths of the most unsettling works of art ever devoted to the subject, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, was that some of the terrorists looked convincingly inspired by idealism when they were getting ready to sacrifice themselves. They were all too willing to sacrifice innocent people as well—Pontecorvo didn’t gloss that over—but inspired they were. Desperation had brought them to it, but inspiration was what it was.

Religion makes inspiration easy. Young Hamas and Al Qaeda suicide bombers of today are promised a place in paradise, as of tomorrow. It sounds more attractive than dying for dialectical materialism. But even a nominally Marxist terrorist is seldom likely to risk his life for communism. He risks his life for the oppressed. (Should he succeed, they will almost certainly end up more oppressed than ever, but he is too young to have read the books that prove it.) Our revulsion comes from his readiness to kill innocent people other than his own, but the mathematics might seem convincing. Kill a few innocent people in a nightclub now, and that will save the lives of thousands later. (In the 1960s, the mathematics were put into a book, Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea: a little classic of casuistry which can be recommended, with a health warning, to anyone who doubts just how dangerous the French intelligentsia could be in that period.) He assumes that there can be an economy of killing, and the awful truth is that he is not entirely absurd to think so. An economy of killing was in the minds of the terrorists who helped to found the state of Israel. Britain, the mandatory power, was a democractic state within the meaning of Rognoni’s definition. Theoretically, it was open to persuasion by democractic means. Practically, the Israeli activists didn’t think it was. (It should be remembered that British foreign policy had spent years looking as if it had been designed to support their view. The pre-war quotas set against Jewish immigration into Palestine had retained their lethal effect even after the war, with British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin’s ill-disguised self-satisfaction being remembered in Israel as a particularly offensive insult.) The terrorists of the Stern Gang, and the more militant members of the Irgun, saw no means of dissuading the British from their tutelary mission except by terror. The strategy was assumed to have worked because Britain gave up: post hoc ergo propter hoc. (We can be sure that this apparent chain of cause and effect has been in the minds of IRA strategists ever since.) When the Irgun massacred the Palestinian inhabitants of Deir Yassin—the empty houses could still be seen in my time, only a short walk into the suburbs of Jerusalem—officers of the Haganah protested. Bar Lev, Haganah commander in the area, wanted to arrest the Irgun leaders, one of whom was Menachem Begin. David Ben-Gurion didn’t listen. It seems a fair inference (I have heard even anti-Zionist Israeli liberals implying it) that terrorizing the Palestinian population into flight was a deliberate policy.

These considerations need to be kept in mind by anyone who, like myself, believes in the state of Israel’s right to exist and regards the concerted attack by the Arab nations in 1948 as ample reason for Israel to be concerned in perpetuity about defensible borders. But it was worse than unfortunate, it was tragic, that the apparently efficacious use of terror threw a long shadow. When the Arab countries had their man of the hour in Anwar Sadat of Egypt, the man of the hour in Israel was none other than Menachem Begin, whose pedigree went back to Deir Yassin. Actually it went back further than that, into an experience under the Nazis which taught him that the only answer to threatened extermination was to fight with any means: moral considerations were a culpable luxury, for which your own innocent people would have to pay. The two major totalitarian earthquakes of the twentieth century—the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—had a seismic influence on the Middle East: wave after wave of distortion, the waves interfering with each other in a pattern so complex that it looks like chaos.

But there was one influence easy to isolate. The state of Israel was built by people who knew all too much about terror. Failure by the Arab powers to grasp this fact led them to the supreme stupidity of threatening extinction to people who had been threatened with it already by experts. But Israeli leaders who take a hard line against Palestinian insurgency are asking a lot if they expect automatic moral condemnation from onlookers for the latest suicide bomb delivered by a young Palestinian with a ticket to the beyond. The PLO has a suitably disgusting track record in which the Black September massacre of the Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972 was merely the most attention-getting point. Hamas will probably top that sooner or later. But the state of Israel’s own track record goes back far beyond Ariel Sharon’s dubious achievements in the Lebanon refugee camps. (All he did was stand by, but it was a murderous indifference.) It goes back to an act of terror by the Irgun. It goes back to the King David Hotel collapsing in Jerusalem. When it did, the perpetrators got what they wanted.

Now their descendants must convince the Palestinians that similar means will never work. The Palestinians would be easier to convince, of course, if their activists, and the Arab nations that stand behind them, had any real idea of the continuous historical tragedy that led up to the installation and consolidation of a Jewish settlement in Palestine. Unfortunately the standard of informed commentary on the Arab side has been kept ruinously low by the absence of an independent, secular intelligentsia. I met Edward Said, and liked him as anyone would. He had distinction of mind written all over him. He must have been already sick by then, but he looked haunted as well, and I don’t think it was just by his outrage at Israel’s behaviour. He was haunted by the ironic fact that his only natural allies were liberals within Israel. An inch away from Amos Oz and a thousand miles from Vanessa Redgrave, Said was an isolated figure, and he himself could never admit in print that the Arab nations dished their cause in advance by not persuading the Palestinians to accept their own state in 1947, and by combining to attack the nascent Israeli state in 1948. If he had, he would probably have been assassinated. (As the assassination of Sadat proved, the Arab irredentists, like the Zionist ultras, have always been unerring in picking off any incipient mediators.) In the Israeli press, a constant feature is a sottisier of what the official Arab publications, including school textbooks, say about the eternal iniquity of the Jewish race and the holy necessity to eradicate it from the face of the Earth. The Israelis scarcely need to quote any of that stuff out of context. Most of the remarks could have come out of the divinely inspired mouth of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem at the time when he was in Berlin urging Hitler to get on with it.

Compared with terrorism in the Middle East, terrorist campaigns elsewhere in the world tend to strike us as half-hearted: Low Intensity Operations, as regular forces are wont to call them. We should resist that emphasis, or lack of emphasis. There has been nothing half-hearted about terror in Northern Ireland. But there again, ambiguity looms. The Republic of Ireland owes its existence to terror. Terror worked. It was a terror campaign that forced the local constabulary and the British forces to counter-terror. Not only the nauseating activities of the Black and Tans, but what the British army felt compelled to do to maintain order, was sufficient to demoralize the London government and bring about Home Rule. Since partition, the IRA in the North, even when apparently dormant, has worked for the same result, and not entirely without success. At one stage even Conor Cruise O’Brien was suggesting that a further partition was the only solution. It was possible to imagine the Protestant enclave being driven in upon itself to the point where its members would go home. Certainly the terrorists were dreaming of something like that. If the Protestants had not been a majority in the North, it might have worked. Confined by a shorter perimeter, no longer a majority in the North but still a minority within an almost united Ireland, the northern Protestants would be reduced to the position of the pieds noirs in Algeria, who pointed out in vain that they were home: they were born there, and had no other home to go to. But there was always France, where the new man in charge, Charles de Gaulle, having first pretended to listen to them, yielded to the inevitable. The inevitable had been made so by terror. Without the terror, the French army would not have been driven first to torture, then to demoralization, and finally to subversion. Democratic means would never have changed the domocracy’s mind: or so the National Liberation Front strategists, armed with a plenitude of historic evidence, preferred to believe.

For Latin America, the situation has been analysed by Mario Vargas Llosa with clarity, subtlety and an admirably firm hand. A one-time leftist himself—his years at Sartre’s feet turned his head, until Camus began to set it straight—Vargas Llosa found on his return to the Spanish world that the arguments in favour of Marxist insurgency were a confidence trick. New students of Spanish (who would be wise to start with books of essays anyway) could hardly do better than to track Vargas Llosa’s long series of articles on the subject: they run right through his landmark collection Contra il vento y marea and on into his late-flowering, consistently brilliant El lenguaje de la pasion. He paints a repetitive but startling picture—the same thing happening again and again, like successive frames in a strip of film—of insurgent groups such as Peru’s Tupamaros subverting the institutions of their countries to the point where a militarized junta launches terror in its turn, with the result that the institutions erode, underdevelopment plunges to new depths, and the oppressed in whose name the insurgents acted end up more helpless than ever. He gives a classic account of a remorselessly recurring pattern. But not even Vargas Llosa can quite bring himself to face the possibility that if the institutions weren’t working in the first place then a convulsion was what they needed.

The standard promise of the terrorist is to reveal the true nature of the state by unmasking the police force as militarists and the military as fascists. In the Americas, that was roughly what terrorist insurgency did. In Argentina, for example, it was only when the bourgeoisie found its own children being taken and tortured that it woke up from its habitual complacency: and the complacency had been complicity, in corruption, exploitation and the deeply damaging sleep of reason. Throughout the Americas, after the CIA’s ground-breaking adventure in Guatemala in the 1950s, there were many young idealists with good cause to believe that the oppressor, drawing on support from Washington, would go on robbing the common people forever. The results of that belief were disastrous, and particularly so for the common people. But the belief can’t be dismissed. Vargas Llosa, with an artist’s mind and a politician’s practical knowledge, is understandably reluctant to reach the philosopher’s uncomfortable conclusion that chaos might have been constructive. But terror, if it was criminally foolish in presuming to dramatize the true nature of states, was historically functional in dramatizing the desperation of societies content to call themselves moribund rather than admit themselves unjust. Luckily, apart from all the dead Indians, everyone involved spoke the same language. When a proper dialogue started at last, they all understood each other. It is some comfort to realize that bright young idealists in Latin American universities today are reading about these matters in the crystalline Spanish of Vargas Llosa rather than in hasty translations of Regis Debray’s inexcusably irresponsible diatribes. But the voice of a man like Vargas Llosa rings so clearly now only because the air was cleared in the first place of its perennial miasma. If the Americas had waited until the United Fruit Company had evolved into a benevolent institution, they might still be waiting. Finally the disastrous pro-strongman foreign policy of the United States was reversed under President Reagan. When Reagan came to office, only two of the U.S.-favoured states in Latin America were democracies. When he left office, there were only two that weren’t. It was one of the great foreign policy revisions in recent history, but it didn’t happen because Reagan was a genius of sympathetic perception. It happened because there had been telegenic chaos. None of this means, of course, that dead terrorists should be venerated as heroes. Most of them were ruthless dogmatists and many of them were homicidal maniacs. But the problem remains of the ones who were neither.

We have to go a long way down the world’s scale of enormities before we find a terrorist scenario that looks like pure farce. When we do, it’s probably because we don’t know enough about it. Already we forget that the fantasy politics of Germany’s glamorous young terrorists in the Baader-Meinhof era had real victims. In the Basque area of Spain, the terrorists are currently collecting what they call “war tax” from their own civilians: pay up or get shot. It looks like the reductio ad absurdum. At one time a regular holiday-maker in Biarritz, I was very glad when a Basque bomber from south of the border, taking a rest from his little war while he constructed a new device, blew himself through the front window of one of my favourite bars and wound up in pieces all over the Rue Gambetta. (Don’t think it didn’t strike me that I would have been less glad if I had been in the bar at the time.) On top of my holiday from London, I got a holiday from pity. To the onlooker, the Spanish government would appear to have done its best to give the Basques everything they want. It seems, however, that they want their own country, coterminous with their own language and culture. When the Slovaks wanted that, Vaclav Havel gave it to them. (Some of his own colleagues thought he was foolish to do so, and that he permanently impoverished the Czech Republic as a result.) But the Spanish government, we are told, is not in the same position to be generous. Too much of Spanish industry is in Basque territory. It is the mission of the ETA terrorists to persuade the Spanish government that their cause is just. It doesn’t seem so to me: it doesn’t even seem sane. But there are some young Basques who are ready to face torture for it. To steel themselves, they torture each other. Faced with that kind of determination, the first idea we must give up is that terrorists are not serious.

The idea we must never give up is that they are not rational. Not even Israel was necessarily a unique case. The Irgun could have wrought suitably unacceptable havoc on a target that was not alive. But it would have taken more resources than they had, and anyway the chances were good that the British, exhausted from the war and with the will to empire fading fast, would pack up and go home. In all other cases, the consequences of killing the innocent are predictable only in the sense that the terrorists will alienate the best elements among their own political sympathizers. The IRA put its own cause back by years when it blew up a London bandstand that contained nothing military except musicians. The whole idea of a soft target is a misconception. Insurgents could choose the hardest target, themselves. All the evidence suggests that if dramatization is the aim, there is nothing more dramatic than a suicide in the right spot. When the Vietnamese monks set themselves alight in central Saigon, the flames were seen in Washington. When Jan Palach set himself alight in Prague in 1968, the flames were seen in the Kremlin. There was no immediate effect—the sequel was years of oppression in each case—but suppose there had been twice the number of human torches the next day, and twice as many again the day after that, and so on? In recent years the use of demonstrative suicide has expanded to include innocent victims. So far it hasn’t worked: probably because it can’t, in the sense that those groups wedded to it as a weapon have no clear aims that can be granted. (Palestinian suicide bombers, for example, want the dissolution of the state of Israel, a wish that will be granted only on the understanding that the whole area is dissolved along with it, by the atomic bombs that the Israelis would presumably use if the state caved in.) It hardly needs saying that if suicidal terrorists returned to leaving the innocent out of the equation they would no longer be terrorists. But by confining violence to themselves they would be dramatizing one thing for certain: the sympathy for the oppressed that made them ready to give their lives. Young people who see The Battle of Algiers—and they should all see it, although not, I think, before they are old enough to vote—will identify that sympathy as a creative force, and they will not be wrong. In the bar afterwards, however, we might find it hard to resist asking them what they suppose Algeria is like to live in now, almost half a century after the oppressor was put to flight. It isn’t like Italy, that’s for sure. But there lay Rognoni’s big advantage: he was starting with a country that knew what it wanted to get back to, before it went anywhere else.