Monday, November 19, 2007

A terrible crime should cause Europe to re-think a few things

By Norman Manea
Monday, November 19, 2007

The horrible murder of Giovanna Reggianni that took place near a Romanian refugee camp in the suburb of Tor di Quinto in Rome shocked both Italy and Romania. The case gained significance by adding fuel to the fiery public debates now under way not only in Italy but across Europe on the status of refugees and foreign residents. Some Italians responded violently; some Italian and Romanian politicians, eager to offer quick and tough solutions, made scandalous statements that echoed the xenophobic and totalitarian slogans of the past.

We are encountering, not without irony, a kind of grotesque reverse of the "national pride" seen when cultural and sporting stars are appropriated by the state and presented as part of the collective patrimony. Although the murder was an individual crime, to compound the tragedy of a crime through measures that target an entire minority is irresponsible, and will have grave moral and social consequences not only for the unjustly punished but also for the punishers. No minority is, after all, homogenous, which was demonstrated by the fact that the person who alerted the police was a compatriot of the killer and from the same camp of refugees.

Collective punishment also means not only a type of amnesia by Italians and Romanians about what happened under fascism, nazism, communism, but also for their own national histories. Italians, after all, migrated not only from Italy's south to its north, but also to other countries looking for a better life. They, too, know what it is like to be a refugee, an exile, a stranger.

Romania, for its part, has a history not at all admirable in regard to it its Roma minority, whose shortcomings and deeds always attract blame but never any real action by the state to improve their condition. The Roma minority first appeared in Romania in the 14th century, but only in 1856 was its slavery abolished! Romanian society nowadays is dealing with the consequences of decades of terror and lies, of demagogy and poverty that scarred several generations. These wounds cannot be instantly healed. Communism's fall unleashed a huge surge of human energy, but this started with a bizarre and cynical transfer of privileges and assets within the old "nomenklatura," and with a new general Darwinian struggle.

Although economic progress is visible across Romania, and a gradual renewal of a civic conscience through the arrival of democracy has appeared, Romania's burlesque of a political life - despite its European Union membership - shows how persistent its bad old habits of duplicity, inconsistency, fatalism, inertia, and corruption are. Corruption, indeed, now seems to be the society's engine.

There remain in Romania today disadvantaged and neglected groups who are pushed to society's sordid margins. The Roma population, indeed, has 41 percent seasonal workers, 33.5 percent lack any professional skills, 38.7 percent are illiterate. This is not only a Romanian problem, but has become a problem for all of Europe. Nicolae Romulus Mailat, the young man of 25 accused of Giovanna Reggianni's murder, had been interned at age 14 in a school for re-education. He was later condemned again for theft, but was pardoned a year before arriving in Italy. Was poverty the cause of his juvenile offenses in Romania and his crime in Italy? In Dostoievski's great novel "Crime and Punishment," Raskolnikov is pushed to committing his crime not only by his nihilism and rebelliousness, but also by poverty. His social identity is not the same as Mailat's, his spiritual "entity" is drastically different, but his double crime is no less abominable.

For now, there is no reason to hope that Mailat will find through his crime a new start toward salvation through suffering and spiritual renewal. But perhaps we should hear again the words of one of Raskolnikov's interlocutors when he speaks about the "disgusting Sodome" in which he wanders and says that poverty is not a vice, but misery. In poverty one still keeps a kind of "innate noble sentiment," while in misery moral collapse is inherent and disastrous.

Mailat sought escape from his Romanian misery and his Romanian past, but could not imagine that he would find in an Italian refugee camp as much misery as before; that the image in the mirror of his daily new life would be that of a killer. People who know the frightening neighborhood of Tori di Quinto, where Giovanna Reggianni was killed have harsh words to say about the neglect and indifference of Rome's city government. This isn't, of course, an excuse for this crime or for any crime, but it cannot be ignored.

Although we cannot expect a miraculous reincarnation of the criminal Mailat, we can and must ask for a radical review of the situation that marginalized people like him face. That review must be done not only by Romanian and Italian states, but by the Roma community in Romania and Italy and also by the European community itself. For the perpetrator is a member of all these communities. We hear voices now who are exasperated by the EU's enlargement and the social tensions it provoked. Increased migration is, indeed, a daily fact in our centrifugal and global modernity, but it isn't only a negative one.

The free movement of people doesn't only mean more social conflict and criminality. It also means a gradual and beneficial cohabitation that began immediately after WWII as a common effort to help out the defeated countries and enhance their chances for democracy and prosperity. When I visited Barcelona and Madrid last year, I was delighted to receive enthusiastic news about the successes of the growing Romanian community in these cities. Some Romanian refugees were already candidates for the local elections, praised for their hard work and honesty. It will happen, I hope, also in other places and not only with Romanians but with all the people ready to face the provocations of our time.

For these are examples not only of individual success, but are victories for the community as well. Europe deserves to prove that it is a real community, one diverse, democratic, spiritual, free, and prosperous.

Norman Manea is a Romanian writer and has been translated into 20 languages. His latest book, "The Hooligans's Return," received in 2006 the Prix Medicis etrangers. This commentary is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate (c)

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