Six months ago, the radical left-wing political science professor Toni Negri made an extraordinary decision. After 14 years living comfortably in Paris as a fugitive from Italian justice, he decided to come home and face a 30-year jail sentence. His crime, at least according to the charge sheet, was inciting his students at Padua University to terrorist violence back in the 1970s.
Professor Negri has always denied the charges, and his case has provoked strong criticism from Amnesty International and others. But he chose to go to jail to become a living symbol of Italy's need to come to terms with the multiple injustices of the terrorist period. He declared he was willing to admit he had made mistakes - even if they were not criminal ones - and hoped the Italian state would be magnanimous enough to do likewise and declare an amnesty.
Six months on, Professor Negri is still in Rebibbia prison in Rome, but the debate has taken on greater urgency. A parliamentary committee has drafted a law that would trim jail sentences for terrorist offences far enough to free most of the 180-odd people still being punished for their crimes. Politicians on all sides have spoken of the need to put the dark days of the late 1970s behind them and acknowledge that the terrorists no longer pose a threat.
And now President Scalfaro has exercised his prerogative to pardon six minor brigatisti - none responsible for shedding blood - still caught in the judicial wringer. "It's realistic to think," said the senior left- wing politician, Pietro Folena, "that by the year 2000 our country will have closed its accounts with the Years of Lead."
But why should Italy consider pardoning a generation of terrorists that, from 1969 to 1981, blew up banks and railway stations, killed dozens of policemen, magistrates and journalists, and carried out the audacious kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the leader of the Christian Democrat party?
Part of the reason is a cultural reflex: the desire not to exacerbate social divisions through revenge, but rather to adhere to the Catholic tradition of forgiveness (interestingly the Italian word being used for the terrorist amnesty, indulto, is by origin a Church term referring to a special dispensation from the tenets of canon law).
Part of the reason is an acknowledgement that terrorists, particularly the left-wing variety, were treated far more harshly by the judicial system than common criminals would have been for similar offences; in other words, there was an explicit political element to their punishment.
But perhaps the most compelling, if least advertised, reason to put the events of the 1970s to rest is the culture of bad faith, hatred, conspiracy and violence that enveloped the entire country during the period - leading to subversive acts committed not only by a handful of political ideologues but by magistrates, politicians and intelligence officers, too. Enough scandals have emerged from the period to implicate large chunks of the state structure in illegality and violence.
The first wave of bombings, starting with an attack on a bank in Piazza Fontana in Milan in 1969, were right-wing in inspiration and intended to counter the rising fortunes of the Communist Party. Evidence has emerged that parts of the political elite and secret services devised a deliberate "strategy of tension" to deter the public from voting the Communists into power. But the precise chain of responsibilities has never been established, and even the identities of the bombers have never been adequately proven.
The Red Brigades and other violent leftist groups emerged as a reaction to the right-wing terrorists and to the state's cack-handed attempts to blame the early bombings on left-wing anarchists. There are suspicions that parts of the Christian Democrat party allowed Moro to be killed rather than negotiating for his release because they did not approve of his policy of rapprochement with the Communists.
The murkiness also spread into the judicial system. Professor Negri is just one celebrated case of suspected miscarriage of justice. Three left- wing activists in jail for the murder of a Milan police officer in the early 1970s are also widely believed to be innocent, victims of a judicial process that has been likened to the Spanish Inquisition.
Because of Italy's system of plea-bargaining, a number of Red Brigades murderers got off relatively lightly while others further down the pole of responsibility have languished in jail for years.
An amnesty is a convenient way of closing the lid on all of these horrors. Significantly, one of the most ardent champions of the indulto is the former state president, Francesco Cossiga, a man linked to myriad scandals of state involvement in subversive acts. During the Moro kidnapping he was interior minister and thus directly responsible for the decision whether or not to negotiate with his party leader's captors.
The amnesty's passage through parliament requires a two-thirds majority. It could be scuppered by political concerns: the party headed by the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, wants to link an amnesty on terrorism to an amnesty on the recent wave of corruption scandals in which Mr Berlusconi is deeply implicated. The one could easily cancel out the other.
In the wrangling, the concerns of the families of terrorism victims have gone virtually unheeded. Unlike France, Italy has no mechanism for providing compensation or any kind of state help to bereaved relatives. An amnesty may relieve a lot of troubled consciences, but nobody has yet had the courage to say sorry for the murky violence of the past.Reuse content