Donald Morrison: Getting Rid of an Occupier

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PALERMO, Sicily — On a spring day in 1992, a bomb exploded in under a highway outside this city, the capital of Sicily, killing an Italian judge named Giovanni Falcone. Two months later, another bomb killed another judge, Paolo Borsellino, as he rang the doorbell of his mother's Palermo home.

Those explosions changed the course of Sicilian history.

I've spent the past couple of weeks on this Massachusetts-size island, which sits like a lumpy football being kicked by the Italian "boot." Sicily is unexpectedly magnificent: more intact Greek temples than you'll find in Greece, more Roman amphitheaters than in Rome, almost as many Norman churches as in Normandy.

Yes, Norman. Before they invaded Britain in 1066, William the Conqueror's colleagues left France to conquer Sicily. Other invaders, over the past three millennia, include the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Spanish and Germans, as well as Arabs from North Africa. Also Americans, between 1943 and '46. Sicily's many colonizers left abundant traces of their presence on the landscape and the culture.

All except one.

For nearly two centuries, Sicily was occupied by a homegrown invader, the Mafia. It sprang from the upheavals that followed Italian unification, but it also reflected the island's quasi-feudal social order. The Mafia quickly became a law unto itself. Through violence and intimidation, it dominated politics, business, everything.

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The dictator Benito Mussolini came close to eradicating the mob, but his efforts were stalled by World War II and eradicated by U.S. occupation forces. They freed Sicilian-born mobsters from U.S. jails and teamed them with local Mafia bosses to help smooth the way for invasion and restore order afterward. That effort succeeded, but it also made Sicily a mob preserve.

Then came Falcone and Borsellino. Boyhood friends in Palermo, they both studied law at the local university, became judges and dedicated their lives to fighting organized crime. They were major figures in the so-called "maxi trial" that convicted 475 mob bosses from all over Italy in the late 1980s. Falcone's role helped inspire director Marco Bellocchio's new film, "The Traitor," Italy's entrant in this year's Academy Awards.

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The Mafia never forgave Falcone and Borsellino. When the bombs went off, Sicilians knew why.

They rose up in anger, demonstrating in the streets and displaying anti-Mafia slogans. (You can still see some, fading on buildings and proudly preserved in restaurants.) Businesses stopped paying protection money. Police and prosecutors risked death to arrest hundreds more mob bosses.

Italy's Christian Democrat-led government, widely thought to be in cahoots with the Mafia, bowed to popular pressure, sending 5,000 troops to back up Sicilian authorities and passing tougher nationwide anti-racketeering laws. Those moves failed to save the Christian Democrats, who had led Italy for half a century. The party was voted out of power in 1992 and dissolved two years later.

There is a lesson in Sicily's unexpected revolt: An authoritarian occupier, no matter how entrenched and politically powerful, can be overthrown.

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As it happens, a force fitting that description is trying to entrench itself in America. This occupation is only two years old, but already its damage to laws and democratic norms is shocking. So are its Mafia-like attempts to corrupt the judiciary, the press, regulatory agencies, the electoral process, even American diplomacy, to enhance its power.

And, like the Mafia, this occupying force may never be completely defeated. The Sicilian mob still exists, though it is confined largely to the shadows of the drug trade and a few other businesses. For the most part, it no longer controls political parties, extorts protection money from shopkeepers and factory owners, or litters the landscape with the bodies of judges, journalists and social reformers.

The Mafia's visible traces on the landscape of Sicily have been replaced by monuments to the figures who hastened its downfall: Falcone and Borsellino. Palermo's airport is now named after the two judges. So are countless streets and schools. Plaques and shrines mark the places where they were killed. Art installations in their honor can be seen across the island.

All of these are testaments not just to the courage and righteousness of two boyhood friends, but also to the ability of an outraged people — using determined, concerted action — to regain their dignity.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member.


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