“What the duck?”
Those were my exact words (except that I made no mention of water fowl) when, on my car radio, I heard that the newly re-elected Italian Prime Minister’s government, in emulation of Nazi Germany, has begun fingerprinting and registering Roma people living in Italy –—citizens and immigrants alike. (In English the Roma often are called “Gypsies,” a term I’ll avoid using here because most Roma people find the word offensive.)
I’ll admit it: I dropped the F-bomb, the mother of all cuss words. It is language that didn’t exactly match the white dog collar I happened to be wearing at the time (I was driving home from a graveside funeral), but I said it anyway, and I think the sentiment was appropriate, especially for a man of the cloth.
After all, this is 2008, almost seventy years after the Holocaust, when as many as 500,000 Roma people died alongside European Jews in Nazi concentration camps. The human family—especially in Europe—was supposed to evolve beyond such ethnic bigotry. The Holocaust is still a living memory for many people in the world today. What’s wrong with our collective recollection?
While the Italian government has attempted to spin the fingerprinting of Roma people as an effort to alleviate conditions in overcrowded and unsanitary camps which are home to much of the Italian Roma population, they also acknowledge that the fingerprinting and registering is part of an effort to reduce street crime. Italy’s Interior Minster Roberto Maroni, the architect of the fingerprinting scheme, told the European parliament that fingerprinting Roma in Italy is necessary in order to fight crime and identify illegal immigrants.
Maroni, it turns out, represents the parliamentary district in Northern Italy where my great-grandparents were born. It’s a place I’ve visited a couple of times, and if there’s a problem with petty crime perpetrated by anyone of any ethnicity in that district I’d be very surprised to hear about it; it’s often the case that people from ethnically homogeneous rural regions express fear around what goes on in populated areas with greater ethnic diversity and higher rates of poverty and crime. It happen in the Unites States (I know, because I was raised in such a monochromatic rural community), so it should come as no surprise that such ignorant prejudice could happen elsewhere as well.
The Roma have a reputation for committing petty crime in Italy. It is a negative stereotype that has plagued the European Roma population for centuries. In times of economic uncertainty (such as today and in Germany before the Second World War) European Roma populations often become scapegoats and the targets of violence born of fear. It’s hard to imagine such xenophobic banality exists today in Italy, a country that in so many ways seems advanced and enlightened. Alas, the sins of the past are never as far behind us as we wish they were.
The idea that the Italian government should punish the Roma in an effort to reduce crime is absurd and ironic. While it may (or may not) be true that Roma people commit crimes at a disproportionately high rate in Italy, the Italian political class hardly is in a position to cast the stones of judgment. Italian politicians may not be picking the pockets of Belgian tourists on the Ponte Vecchio, but it’s hard to imagine a shadier group of lawmakers outside of a Banana Republic.
Take, for example, Silvio Berlusconi, whose governing collation has spawned this most recent abuse of the Roma people. On a page that was last updated in 2004, Wikipedia lists 12 separate trials faced by Berlusconi. The charges include: false testimony, false accounting, embezzlement, tax fraud, corrupting a judge, illegally financing a political party, corruption, and perjury. In all but one of the cases he evaded punishment not by disputing the charges, but by dragging the appeals process on past the statute of limitations—something you can do in Italy. Further, it is alleged that Silvio Berlusconi has links with the Sicilian Mafia, and that he uses his position as head of state to further the fortunes of his vast media empire.
Officials in Spain have indicted Berlusconi on charges of tax fraud, but he has relied on his status as a member of the European Parliament to gain immunity. Evidently he likes this method of fighting legal battles: just last Friday, at his behest, the Italian lower house of parliament passed a law that would grant legal immunity to all Italian Prime Ministers and Presidents.
For his part, Interior Minister Maroni has admitted to downloading illegally copied music form the internet; Wikipedia—without citing a reference—reports that Roberto Maroni spent nearly five months in jail for impeding a legal investigation of his political party’s Milan headquarters.
It stands to reason that if the Italian government wants to address the problem of crime by keeping tabs on a population with a proven track record of criminal activity, they should be fingerprinting and registering Italian politicians.
The Italian move to fingerprint and register Roma people is simply inexcusable, and it gives the governments of the world’s powerful nations the opportunity to condemn and to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide before it begins, something they failed to do in places like the Balkans, Rwanda and Darfur. For people of faith this should be a time for outrage. The European Parliament, UNICEF, Amnesty International, The Roman Catholic Church and Italy’s main Protestant groups all have condemned the fingerprinting and registering of the Italian Roma. Christians and other people of faith in the Unites States and around the world must join the cause.
We cannot remain silent.