James Walston: I respond. You negotiate. He gives in to terrorism

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The Independent Online

"Qui lo dico, qui lo nego" is an Italian maxim much repeated and much used; it means "I'm telling you and I'm denying it at the same time". This cultural trait explains why most Italians presume that a million-dollar ransom was paid for the two aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, released in Iraq on Tuesday, while Franco Frattini, the Foreign Minister, denies any payment was made.

"Qui lo dico, qui lo nego" is an Italian maxim much repeated and much used; it means "I'm telling you and I'm denying it at the same time". This cultural trait explains why most Italians presume that a million-dollar ransom was paid for the two aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, released in Iraq on Tuesday, while Franco Frattini, the Foreign Minister, denies any payment was made.

Not only is no one shocked at the idea of paying a ransom, some are incensed by foreign criticism. An editorial in Corriere della Sera struck out at both American and Spanish chiding. "Between the New York Post's Rambo-style hardline steroids and the Almodóvar-style firmness of Spanish Foreign Minister [Miguel] Moratinos on the verge of a nervous breakdown, saving the hostages' lives is the most reasonable choice," it said. Nor does anyone wonder if paying a ransom will encourage other hostage takers and finance insurgents. There is no Italian equivalent to "paying the Danegeld".

The only negative voices come from a few contrary folk on the right who are upset that so much money and diplomatic effort have been spent in freeing two women who were against the war in Iraq from the start. Readers of Libero and Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of Il Foglio, reckon that the two women should repay the money.Libero's editor complained that when someone is kidnapped in Italy, the authorities freeze relations' assets, but when it happens in Iraq, the taxpayer pays the ransom. The conclusion he drew was not the one that either the US tabloid or the Spanish minister came to - that paying ransoms is immoral and doesn't work. No, he implied that it was wrong for authorities to prevent relations negotiating with kidnappers and paying the ransom.

Along with the rest of the country, Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, clearly accepts the line taken by the Vatican: "It does not matter if the gesture of humanity needed some prompting," wrote L'Osservatore Romano. The chairman of the Chamber of Deputies Foreign Affairs Committee, Gustavo Selva, said that there should be no giving in to terrorists, but that on some occasions "exceptional measures" might be necessary.

The Italian prime minister is certainly very proud of the successful outcome of the crisis and no one notices the inconsistency with previous statements about how "international terrorism knows no borders, so it is every state's responsibility to take part in this war" (presumably with a white flag, if necessary). Berlusconi is riding high, with his Iraq policy confirmed by part of the opposition and his political position greatly strengthened. One rumour suggests that the ransom was paid with Gulf money by a Kuwaiti happy to repay Italian support in the past or hoping for favours in the future. If that is true, Berlusconi looks even better in Italian eyes as he did not spend a euro.

So the right is not going to jump on the contradictions and, for once, nor is the left because the two women are anti-war symbols. When three Italian security guards were released in June after a fourth had been murdered, there was a strong suggestion that a ransom had been paid, but no one in the press or elsewhere has pursued the matter, so we will probably never know for certain.

Within Italy, though, it does not matter. Whenever a victim was murdered during the spate of commercial kidnappings in the Eighties, the magistrates who had prevented the ransom being paid by freezing assets were in some way held responsible for the death. Blood is thicker than water and direct contact by "our people" is thought more effective than police action. The underlying presumption is that it is always better to negotiate than take an inflexible position. This applies from respecting traffic lights to international crises. Sometimes it pays, sometimes it creates terrible snarl-ups. Over time, police and magistrates in Italy were able to stop the kidnappings partly because victims' families could not pay the ransom.

In Iraq, time will tell if the presumed ransom will further fuel Iraqi kidnapping and if the sum paid will buy more rocket-propelled grenades and explosives to use against Italian troops as well as American and British. But in the meantime, the hostages are home. In Britain, there is less candour. But for Ken Bigley, the Government seems to have adopted one of those political irregular verbs: "I respond. You negotiate. He gives in to terrorism."

James Walston is professor of international relations at the American University of Rome

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