Alex Fusco: Do not tar all Italians with the brush of cowardice

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The Independent Online

Francesco Schettino, the disgraced captain of the stricken vessel Costa Concordia, has become a stick with which to beat the Italian nation. Both Italian and international commentators have quickly cast Schettino as the anti-hero, the indolent flash-and-swagger imbecile incapable of taking a modicum of responsibility for his passengers.

This may well be true, but to write off his behaviour as intrinsically "Italian" is inexcusable. Der Spiegel, the German daily newspaper, carried a headline which portrayed Italy as a nation of "cowards" placing Schettino's reaction in context, as if asking: "The man is Italian – what do you expect?"

Cowardice is not actually a national characteristic, as far as I'm aware. Neither is the lack of a sense of duty, a tendency to shirk all responsibility and a complete disregard for the lives of others. These are the character traits of one man, a captain who has proved his incompetence with any kind of compass, be it nautical or moral.

But he is not a representative of Italy any more than Vito Corleone, Mr Dolmio or that human oil-slick the country is better off without, Silvio Berlusconi. Comparisons have been drawn between the former premier and Schettino, pointing out that both have "abandoned" sinking ships: the former resigning from office as the public tide turned against him, the latter tripping and falling into a lifeboat as his cruise ship capsized. What is quite abundantly obvious is that neither man had the personality to lead in the first place, both preferring to lie repeatedly to a distressed public and ingloriously save their own skins, rather than trying to rectify disastrous situations that could be largely attributed to their own ineptitude.

The Italian newspaper Il Giornale responded to Der Spiegel on Friday by comparing the Italian "cowardice" to the passivity of German civilians during the Holocaust. Like shooting a rabbit with a tank, the paper lost all sense of proportion; referring to Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day is distasteful in the extreme. What is also apparent, though, is that Italy is tired of being painted as a nation of jokers and fools.

Fortunately, there are also men like the Livorno harbour master Gregorio De Falco, or the new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who can redress this imbalance. Calm and authoritative in the face of catastrophe, able to instruct and organise those around them, and blessed with a clear sense of duty – by their own admission, these men are not heroes. But they are infinitely more representative of a proud, determined nation such as Italy than men like Francesco Schettino.