Roman Holiday: Placid on the Piazza Despite U.S. Warning

ROME—Exactly how scared am I supposed to be over here?

I’ve been wondering about this since last month, when the U.S. State Department announced that Americans living in Italy are now in danger of possible terrorist attacks. For some reason, the terror isn’t sinking in. Even after they warned me that:

Demonstrations are planned in various parts of the country in anticipation of the upcoming Italian Parliamentary elections April 9 and 10, and municipal elections in May …. Demonstrations may be large, but even peaceful demonstrations have the potential to escalate into violence. Some of the demonstrations may be announced; others may be spontaneous …. The Department of State advises U.S. citizens travelling or residing in Italy to avoid areas where crowds are expected to gather, take common sense precautions, and closely follow media reports ….

Of course, it’s tough to even find a place in Rome where crowds aren’t expected to gather, much less to remain there. Americans in Italy tend to be found in cities rather than, say, remote, sparsely populated mountain villages. You end up thinking that whoever writes these announcements ought to get out of the office more. What if the Italian government warned its citizens visiting New York to “avoid areas where crowds are expected to gather”?

I guess I could just stay inside for the next few months, but it’s difficult when outside, there is Rome. Still, how can I take unnecessary chances once I hear that:

… The Department of State reminds Americans of the continuing threat of terrorist attacks, demonstrations and other violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests overseas. Ongoing events in Iraq have resulted in demonstrations and associated violence in several countries. Italy continues to be under heightened public threat by al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists for its continued participation in multinational activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. citizens are reminded to maintain vigilance, take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness, and exercise caution in public places or while using public transportation. U.S. citizens are advised to immediately report any unusual or suspicious activity in Italy to the police or the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

I don’t know what kind of coverage this got back home (though I can guess: not much). But the announcement—which is less dire than the “travel warning” the government issues to scare you away from Sudan or Haiti—was front-page news several days running in the Italian papers. Whenever America has something to say about Italy, people here pay attention. Some of the stories were about whether the warning would scare off tourists. But mostly the coverage was of the effect it would have on the election for prime minister, which the polls had pretty tight between the incumbent, Silvio Berlusconi, and leftist Romano Prodi. Because Italians are trained from birth to look for the hidden hand behind every event, they’re eyeing the political motive for George W. Bush to help his pal Berlusconi by ramping up the fear and paranoia.

In Il Messaggero, Italian foreign minister Gianfranco Fini, of the right, responded to the alert with this practical tip (my translation): “Certainly, if an American citizen goes to a demonstration held by certain elements of the radical left, where they burn the American and Israeli flags, and says, ‘I am American and I voted for Bush,’ he runs a risk.” Beyond that, though, the Italians seem underwhelmed by any new potential for danger. Last summer, an Al Qaeda public-service announcement threatened to turn Italy into “a cemetery.” Nobody here flinched. A huge amount of Rome is already a cemetery. It’s why tourists come. Besides, everybody still remembers the 1970’s, when for a whole decade extremists from the left and the right waged urban civil war using terrorist tactics, including the bombing of the Bologna train station and the kidnap-murder of ex-Premier Aldo Moro. It’s hard to make Italians worry more than usual. And even when you do, they’re too stubborn to show it.

Anyway, it’s tough to imagine anything terrible happening during demonstrations. Italians have always lived their politics passionately, outdoors and together— in piazza, as they call it. It’s a shame that America has gotten out of the habit. The weather in Rome is almost always nice enough for a walk, and there is also the inherent sociability of people here. Whether it’s anarchists against drug laws or senior citizens for bigger pensions or the single fathers or the students or the homeless, crowds gathering purposefully are part of daily life. You read in the morning paper where the day’s demonstrations will be and when and then plan your schedule around the blockages.

A few days after the Italy announcement, the State Department made a similar warning to Americans in France. There, demonstrations do inevitably degenerate into violence, even against the demonstrators. Unlike Italy, Paris is a tinderbox. But all the terror is homegrown.

Here, the fear isn’t for Americans, it’s of them. Not of American tourists, of course—Italians are afraid of America itself and what new mischief we might drag them into.

“Beel,” our neighbor Fausto said to me yesterday, “ chi in America ama questa guerra in Iraq?”

“Nobody loves the war,” I said. “Not anymore.”

He had a gloomy look on his face as he considered this.

“If the right wins in the election next week,” he said, “you won’t see me around, because I’m leaving the country.”

I laughed. “Where are you going?”

“Maybe Australia,” he said. “Or maybe New Zealand.”

“You’re crazy,” I said. “You guys outlasted Mussolini. You’re going to let Berlusconi chase you out of your own country?”

“If the right wins, it’s not my country,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of a country that’s fighting in this war.”

But Italians don’t hold a grudge against us for dragging them into Iraq. They feel about America the way I’d feel my about my 7-year-old if he pulled a loaded pistol out of his backpack and began waving it around the kitchen. I’d love him as much as ever. But I’d be real worried about what he was going to do next. From over here, America looks scary even to me. Otherwise, terror seems far, far away.

There’s only one consolation in the State Department’s warning:

This Public Announcement will expire on June 19, 2006.

O.K.—if I can just stay away from Italians until then, I’ll be safe.