The most disturbing element of Alexander Stille’s tremendous Excellent Cadavers is not the brutality of the mafiosos it describes. They are hideous, of course, but anyone who keeps at least one eye upon the news will be aware of tyrants, terrorists and all manner of murderers who acquaint us with the depths of human nature. What I found more depressing than the psychopathy of the few was the greed and moral cowardice of the many.
In Calabria, for example, a butcher was decapitated with one of his own carving knives. His head was then used in the street for target for practice. Stille writes that it…
…had occurred in broad daylight in a central square of town and had taken some seventeen minutes, and yet no one had seen anything.
One can have some empathy with the self-preservation of the common man but the corruption, blindness and pusillanimity of the social elites was appalling. The few men and women who strove to face organised crime were met with silence and sneers. Dalla Chiesa was a respected general of the carabinieri who was appointed prefect of Palermo. His investigations were starved of political backing, and regarded with disdain by officials and the media, and he became an isolated and vulnerable man. One day he told the American consul of an occasion where a captain in the carabinieri had been threatened by a mafia boss…
[Chiesa] took the captain by the arm and began walking with him slowly up and down the main street. Everyone looked at them. In the end, this odd couple stopped in front of the house of the local mafia boss. The two stayed long enough to make clear to everyone that the captain was not alone. “All I am asking is that someone take me by the arm and walk with me,” the general said. A few hours later he was killed.
Gunmen on motorbikes forced his car off the road and showered it with bullets. Chiesa was found slumped over his wife in an effort to protect her from the gunfire.
It is sickening to think of how little heart and backbone men and women can display even when they are confronted with such evil. It is also frightening, because of what it says about humans and, more particularly, about the nature of the state. Much of the Italian officialdom had an active relationship with the Mafia but politicians needed no such distinct motives to hinder attempts to fight them. Political wrangling, bureaucratic pedantry and personal egotism bogged down investigative and prosecutorial efforts even as Sicilians were being killed by the dozen. What did they care as long as their behinds were sitting somewhere warm and comfortable?
What gives cause for hope, however, is the heroism of the men and women who did struggle. Their courage and decency seems all the more astonishing given their isolation. The most notable examples were Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the two magistrates who, more than anyone, strove to engineer the changes that allowed the laws to be tightened, the informants to emerge and, eventually, mafiosos to be jailed for life. One should not overstate the power of individuals to effect social change but they are undeniable examples of the good that can be done. With minimal support and regular obstruction they and their little band of magistrates struck the gravest blow to Cosa Nostra that it ever faced.
One should not forget the resistance of private citizens, whose voices echoed loud even if they were powerless to act. Libero Grassi, a clothing manufacturer, published a letter in which he defied the extortion demands of the criminals. He was isolated by his peers and gunned down by his enemies. Pino Puglisi, a Roman Catholic priest, was trained by one of a common breed of thick-headed clerics who denied that the Mafia was a problem or, indeed, a genuine phenomenon. He cared for the world beyond his church doors, though, and denounced mafiosos in his sermons. He was shot on his 56th birthday. “Is there any use in living,” said the investigative journalist Giuseppe Fava, who like these men, and like Falcone and Borsellino, was slain by the Mafia, “If you don’t have the courage to fight?” These men lived and died knowing that they were honourable. If their peers looked in or at themselves all they would see is black hearts and yellow bellies.
As for the Mafia: these thugs relied on the perception of themselves as men of honour, buoyed by myths both old and, thanks to Hollywood, new. It was a lie, of course. They kneeled before altars even as they shot priests; worshipped their wives and widowed others; claimed to represent the values of their communities as they showered them with drugs and soaked them in blood. Stille is interesting, though, when he writes of how their success was based on their appropriation of traditional values such as family, loyalty and respect. Virtues become vices all too easily when their application is selective or fanatical.
Self-aggrandising hypocrites though they were, they did have an internal ethic of respect and honesty. It was, indeed, when the Corleonesi, under their monstrous Napoleon Toto Riina, seized power in a hail of gunfire in the 1980s that Cosa Nostra was at its most powerful yet also its most fragile. Even the most lawless of organisations needs rules for itself, lest its members become insecure and the people it dwells within become hostile. Riina’s savagery inspired unprecedented numbers of betrayals from scared and sickened mafiosos and outbursts of anger from a horrified public. One of the greatest assets of the criminal is humility; the knowledge of their own limits.
Cosa Nostra have known this and, when they have been in danger, have withdrawn into the shadows to regroup and refresh themselves. It is this knowledge that makes it hard to know if the wounds inflicted by Falcone and his colleagues will last or if they will become as strong a force as ever. Their spiritual cousins in the ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra are still powerful, still destructive and still reliant on official corruption and blindness, and every now and then one hears stirrings from Sicily. It would not do to grow complacent when anger and resoluteness have been such powerful weapons.