Peter Popham: Never mind the useless bodyguards – only politics matters

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The Independent Online

It became clear soon after Sunday evening's attack on Silvio Berlusconi that his assailant, a 42-year-old graphic designer called Massimo Tartaglia, was not a political activist but a man with serious mental problems. In "a normal country", to employ a phrase beloved of Italian commentators, that would have been the end of the matter. Attention would have shifted to the fact that Mr Berlusconi's dozens of bodyguards were unable to protect him. Critics would have focused on the incompetence of his security detail, the lack of effective surveillance, and demanded a shake-up in the security services.

But Italy being Italy, these questions of life and death were quickly swept to the margins. Instead commentators insisted on treating the attack as a political event – and a dire augury for the future. Saturday, it was pointed out, was the 40th anniversary of the massacre in Milan's Piazza Fontana, when 17 people were killed by a bomb exploding, marking the start of Italy's "years of lead", when terrorist outrages become common. Perhaps Italy was at a similarly dire crossroads today, analysts opined. If politicians reacted irresponsibly, they could provoke a further downward spiral.

The reaction told us nothing about this particular attack but a lot about Italy's heavy political weather. Fifteen years after Mr Berlusconi entered politics, he dominates the nation's political discourse in a way that has no parallels in the rest of the developed world. He has destroyed the communists as a political force, and rendered the centre-left impotent, despite the fact that his government's achievements in reviving Italy's fortunes have been paltry.

There is a mood of surliness and stagnation in the country; never has it looked shabbier or more demoralised, and no one seems to have an idea about how to break the stalemate.

Mr Berlusconi came to power promising a second economic miracle. Hopes of such an event have long since evaporated, but his supporters still cling to him like a talisman, fearful that any step into the unknown would bring something worse. Meanwhile those who blame him for failing to revive the country's fortunes take out their frustrations in the sort of mindless abuse yelled by hecklers during the speech he delivered in Milan, before he was attacked. Italy has also seen a minor epidemic of second-rate feature films with plots that centre on fantasies of Mr Berlusconi's assassination.

Italian politicians of all parties have rallied round to condemn the attack and wish the Prime Minister a speedy recovery. Privately, however, they will be cursing Mr Tartaglia's moment of madness. The coming wave of public sympathy is likely to hike Mr Berlusconi's popularity even higher, and put this extraordinary politician even further beyond their reach.