Suggestions from the Antimafia Struggle in Sicily

By Schneider, Jane; Schneider, Peter | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Suggestions from the Antimafia Struggle in Sicily


Schneider, Jane, Schneider, Peter, Anthropological Quarterly


Although not ideologically driven, the Sicilian mafia is a secretive organization whose "families" nurture violence. Moreover, after the breakup of the French Connection, in the context of Sicily's becoming a crossroads of global narcotics trafficking, this violence turned terroristic, with a rising toll of assassinations and increasing resort to bombings directed against the state. The massacres of the Palermo Prefect Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa in 1982, and the heroic prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992, provoked waves of especially intense reaction-high points in a multi-faceted lotto contro la mafia-"struggle against the mafia." Having observed, first hand, the emergence of Palermo since 1982 as an internationally recognized center of experiments in civility and legality, we are encouraged to sketch a few elements of that struggle which might be helpful in thinking about the encounter with terrorist organizations that lies ahead.

One is the value of attending to the police and juridical aspects of the struggle in order to support ethical and intelligent prosecutors and reasonably evaluate their requests for broader investigative powers. Prosecutions in Sicily have depended upon several innovations, most of which derive from a national law of 1982 defining active membership in the mafia as itself a crime. Measures to legitimate the testimony of cooperating witnesses if corroborated by other evidence, and to provide these "pentiti" with a witness protection program, have also been central, as have stiffer sentencing practices after 1992. With these instruments, investigators and prosecutors have "turned" witnesses, followed money trails, located fugitives, and mapped the contours of the organization.

Many Italians have questioned the new laws, fearing that their misuse could threaten civil liberties. Controversy also surrounds the 1980s decision to try mafiosi in a specially constructed courthouse in a mass trial. Yet the antimafia prosecutors (a number of whom have been assassinated) for the most part enjoy wide public support and are, in turn, highly sensitive to organized attempts to delegitimate their efforts. (This had also been true of the prosecutors of ultra-left and ultra-right political terrorism in Italy in the 1970s.)

A Palermo-centered citizens' social movement-the movimento antimafia-- has sustained the police-judicial suppression of the mafia since 1982. Catalyzed into mass demonstrations and vigils by the episodes of terror, this movement persists at a less dramatic level through on-going volunteer work and consciousness raising. For example, activists dedicate time and energy to antimafia projects in the public schools, and to everyday attempts to further an antimafia consciousness in their workplaces, professions, churches, and unions. What is worth appreciating about this movement is that the women and men who participate in it share both location and history with the mafia. Committed to the antimafia struggle, they are also loyal to their Sicilian identity, and in some cases burdened by a past of ambiguous social relations with mafia members. The resulting moral anguish has been the more troubling because, in the wider world, "Sicilians" are so often treated as a stigmatized category. It matters that this wider world has paid attention, that the northern Italian and European media have acknowledged and respected the various strands of antimafia commitment in Sicily.

Citizens' movements against violence will emerge-have already emerged-- in many Muslim countries and in Muslim immigrant and exile communities around the world. These movements are not only essential to the struggle against Al Qaeda and related organizations. Recognizing them and crediting them can help to contradict stereotypic representations of Muslims as extremists in Western popular discourse and, in turn, ease the burden that Muslim anti-terrorists bear.

Significantly, the antimafia struggle in Sicily challenged the Italian state for having harbored, aided and comforted, the mafia. …

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