Secret of why the clan has never shot a soul

Andrew Gumbel concludes his series with a look at the mythical code of silence
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The Independent Online
In a famous comedy sketch by the Italian film director Dino Risi, a mafioso is gunned down by a passing car on the church steps of his hill- top village in Sicily. The police come running out and ask the man who shot him. "Shot?" he answers in his dying breath. "I haven't been shot. I don't know what you're talking about!"

Sicily's reputation for refusing to talk about the Mafia has long since entered popular folklore. Everyone knows about omerta, the mythical code of silence that envelopes the island in a shroud of sinister mystery, and indeed anyone who walks unannounced into a Mafia-controlled village and starts asking direct questions is not likely to get very far.

In truth, though, the culture of silence has undergone a radical change. Gone is the time when the post-war Archbishop of Palermo, Ernesto Ruffillo, could bluntly deny the existence of the Mafia and keep a straight face (in fact he was in cahoots with some of the biggest thugs in the outfit).

The dramatic Mafia murders of the Eighties and early Nineties, and the equally dramatic mass arrests and maxi-trials that followed, have made the business of denial rather more delicate.

Since the first mafioso to turn state's evidence, Tommaso Buscetta, started talking in 1984, Cosa Nostra has effectively ceased to be a secret organisation; omerta, at least as applied to Mafia members, is a dead concept. And the word "Mafia" itself has fully entered the public domain, after decades of euphemistic references to "the friends of the friends".

But that is where the linguistic clarity ends. For reasons of fear or of deeply ingrained self-censorship, Sicilians do not willingly stick their heads above the parapet and talk about the organised crime in their midst. These days they will acknowledge the Mafia's existence, but will often try to depict it as something that does not affect them.

Strategies intended to convey this non-complicity vary. One of the most common is simply: "Don't ask me, ask someone else."

The head of the local business association in Niscemi, Giovanni Millitari, responded to a question about extortion and murder in his town with the words: "Sconosco il problema." What he no doubt meant by this was: "I am not familiar with the problem," but the beautifully ambiguous formulation also means "I refuse to recognise the problem".

The snag with such a response is that it borders on outright denial, and denial is usually interpreted in the complex semantic code of the Sicilian Mafia as a veiled admission of complicity. The Mafia works best where it can work silently; refusing to talk is effectively contributing to the Mafia cause.

Another familiar strain, and a piece of pure syllogism encountered all over Italy, is: "What we have is not Cosa Nostra, therefore we do not have a Mafia problem." Cosa Nostra is traditionally the most powerful Mafia group, concentrated in Palermo and western Sicily, and for years the two terms were synonymous.

But there are virulent Mafia cultures spreading through eastern Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, the Naples area and even the north of Italy. Strictly speaking, these other Mafias have their own names such as 'ndrangheta or Sacra Corona Unita, a technicality which intimidated or suspect citizens will willingly exploit to confound the over-inquisitive.

Or, sometimes, they might even say: "What we have is not as bad as the Mafia."

Yes, said the mayor of Niscemi, Salvatore Liardo, we have murders, drugs trafficking, a corrupt police force, extortion and armed robbery, but at least it is not the Mafia. "It is just a problem with delinquency." This strategy is a variation on "What we have is not Cosa Nostra".

The fact that Niscemi is plagued by a different Mafia phenomenon is enough to get Mayor Liardo off the hook.

Turning the issue upside down takes denial one stage further, turning bad to good: "The Mafia is actually better than what we have," some say.

A very different strategy this, the product of a mentality that believes the Mafia to be an honourable organisation at root that has been besmirched by the recent descent into random violence and insalubrious business interests such as arms and drugs trafficking.

Thus one finds the likes of Frank Zeppia, a convicted member of Cosa Nostra in the United States now confined for two years to his home town of Caltanissetta, bemoaning the outbreak of gangsterism in the surrounding area. "These guys ain't Mafia," he said, "they're pieces of shit."

And finally, the ultimate denial: "The Mafia is not Sicilian, it comes from Rome to oppress us."

Costanza, a student leader from Siracusa, explained. "The true spirit of the Sicilian Mafia is Salvatore Giuliano, who fought for our independence by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. The people they call mafiosi today and put in jail are no more than tools of central government. If Giuliano were alive today, there'd be no lack of Sicilians prepared to fight and die for him."

This argument stems from the very origins of the modern Mafia as a warped resistance movement against Italian unification, and reflects bubbling resentment at the excessively centralised state structure, even in Sicily which has its own reinforced regional government.

While it is true that the Rome government has been severely compromised by the Mafia in the past, it is absurd to ascribe any kind of Sicilian or mafioso purity to Giuliano, a bandit operating at the end of the Second World War with a glamorous reputation but who was used in turn by the independence movement, the Mafia and the Christian Democrat party to commit despicable acts before being betrayed by one of his own men.

The line does not hold for another, more profound reason. As the sociologist Diego Gambetta has argued, the Mafia does not have an ideology, a political programme or even a coherent set of rules of behaviour. It is essentially an economic phenomenon that controls territory through the sale of that double-edged commodity, protection.

That explains the continuing reticence of Sicilians about Cosa Nostra. Protect the Mafia with your silence, and you in turn will be protected. Talk carelessly and there is no telling what might happen.