A young graphic designer called Nicola Tommasoli died in hospital in Verona yesterday afternoon, victim of a neo-fascist mob. After he refused to give a cigarette to a skinhead who approached him, five of them, captured by a surveillance camera, punched and kicked him unconscious. And when it emerged that they belong to a neo-fascist fringe group, Italians began asking themselves: is this the first flick of the whip of the new regime, the first taste of what is to come?
The respectable right was quick to insist that the attack was nothing to do with them. "I would be the first to condemn neo-fascist violence if it really existed," shrugged Ignazio La Russa, a senior figure in the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (AN), likely to be appointed a minister this week. "A certain amount of violence has always existed in society," cooed another AN leader, Maurizio Gasparri. "To warn of a possible return to a climate of political violence is the umpteenth example of foolishness..."
But the fact is that Italy, which has been defined as a laboratory for bad ideas, has embarked on an alarming new experiment. On the cusp of what may prove to be the worst slump in living memory, the far right is closer to the heart of power than at any time since the fall of Mussolini.
The key players in the new Italian right wear beautiful suits and pastel ties and take to the heights of institutional power like ducks to water. Gianfranco Fini, leader of AN, the man who once eulogised Mussolini as the greatest Italian of the 20th century, has become the maestro of the volte-face: in his speech to parliament last week on taking office as speaker of the chamber of deputies, he was careful to pledge his loyalty to Liberation Day, the day of liberation from Nazi-Fascism. It was another statesman-like gesture by the distinguished-looking character who has been straight man to Berlusconi's clown for the past seven years, and is positioning himself to take over when the clowning has to stop.
Gianni Alemanno, his party colleague who won a stunning victory a week ago to become the mayor of Rome, is youthful- looking and fizzing with energy and sincerity, and tends to fly off the handle when linked in too obvious a manner to the "F" word. How is he to blame if his supporters raise stiff right arms on the steps of Rome's town hall to celebrate his victory? Like Fini, Alemanno has put 15 years of clear blue water between himself and his neo-fascist past. Like Fini, he reaches out warmly to the nation at large. In his acceptance speech he said: "I will be mayor of all the Romans, especially of those who didn't vote for me..."
To renounce the Fascist past, as Fini and his colleagues have done, means to renounce anti-Semitism and militarism and to make it clear that one is very sad about the abuses that occurred in the Mussolini years. But they hang on to an irreducible, core idea, and it is the same idea that impels clean-living young thugs to beat up people who refuse them cigarettes, or who have long hair, or have dark skin, or speak with southern Italian accents.
Guido Papalia, the public prosecutor of Verona who is investigating the attack on Tommasoli, explained it like this. "There is a way of thinking which is very widespread these days, which rejects what is different, those who don't dress like us, don't eat like us, don't speak with our accent, in defence of a system that they simply maintain is better than that of others and that therefore must be defended with violence."
Rejecting what is different: that primitive reflex was at the source of the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, and also explains the electoral success of the Northern League in northern Italy over the past year. The League's first fight was against the corruption of central government in Rome: it demanded secession. But when that demand began to look like a fantasy, it cast around for new causes, alighting finally and profitably on local chauvinism.
The Northern League mayors of the Veneto, smooth, professional men in comfortable offices, toss out their simple, excluding ideas: foreigners can live here only if they have a legitimate job, a home and an adequate income. Illegal immigrants should be excluded from schools and universities, their children from day-care centres. Veils should be banned by law. No mosques permitted within the city boundaries. Only those with excellent Italian and close familiarity with the constitution should be eligible for citizenship. Immigrants, including those from within the EU, should be repatriated en masse if they commit offences. Gypsy camps to be torn down...
Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome and now head of the Democratic Party which took a whipping from Silvio Berlusconi at the general election, spelled out the link between the men in suits and the men in boots: "There are lots of gangs like this and they are much more dangerous in a cultural and political climate in which principles of intolerance and hatred towards the weakest are affirmed..."
Yet Mr Veltroni has much to answer for. It was his centre-left regime in Rome which ran the capital for the past 15 years and whose skewed priorities made the right's triumph possible. Mr Veltroni and his predecessor Francesco Rutelli – the centre-left's mayoral candidate beaten last week by Mr Alemanno – ran the city for the benefit of the post-communist intelligentsia, who lapped up the endless film and art and music events and believed it when Mr Veltroni told them that "Rome is the locomotive of Italy", and that culture and tourism were the locomotive's fuel.
But meanwhile the majority of the city's population were shut out of the loop. They lived outside the city's exquisite centre, in benighted and desperately ugly dormitory suburbs with pathetic transport links, scarce policing, negligent local authorities and every indication of official contempt. And those nightmare suburbs continue to multiply. So now the Romans have risen up and thrown the champagne communists out. And the cry is out with the gypsies, in with the police; out with the 20,000 foreigners who have committed crimes; restore the city to those who rightly possess it. The crude and simple appeal of fascism has always been to blood and soil, and so it remains today.
If Italy today has the worst-performing economy in western Europe, it is thanks to the criminal failure of its politicians to tackle the special interest groups which hold the state hostage in every sphere of life, from trade unions to universities, from property development to the justice system. Italy feels itself in decline and reacts electorally with a lurch to the far right, but as so often, everything must change in order that everything stays the same. Those responsible for Italy's problems will continue to make hay just as before. Those who suffer will be those who are least to blame for the country's woes.