Not One Euro for the Earthquake in Abruzzo – Giacomo Di Girolamo

Giacomo Di Girolamo is a journalist in Marsala, Sicily. His open letter, my translation of which appears below, was first published on Facebook several days after the 6 April 2009 earthquake in the Abruzzo region (centered about ten kilometers west of the town of L’Aquila). Di Girolamo’s letter quickly set a record for readers and comments and, on 15 April 2009, La Repubblica’s Adriano Sofri responded to Di Girolamo in a front-page Op-Ed. His half-hearted rebuke suggested that Di Girolamo’s purpose was rhetorical rather than actual—in other words, Sofri opined, the thousands who wrote to say they agreed with Di Girolamo, and probably even Di Girolamo himself, had actually parted with their Euros after all, even if they did so with misgivings.

Leaving aside the question of whether it is or isn’t appropriate to donate money to earthquake relief, the rest of what Di Girolamo says is incontrovertible. The media circus around the earthquake has been shameless. The photo opportunities for politicians mouthing pieties have been endless. And, slowly, alarming facts are beginning to come out: that supposedly seismic-proofed buildings such as the University Student Residence and the San Salvatore Hospital in L’Aquila, both of which were substantially destroyed, may have been constructed with cement mixed with beach sand (taken illegally from the nearby seashore) rather than lime, a substantial savings for contractors but a guarantee that structures built in such a way will be less resistant; that city officials repeatedly told residents, despite literal months of hundreds of smaller earthquakes, not to worry, to go back home, not to be alarmist—and, in the meantime, promulgated no evacuation plan for the city.As for what will likely come of all the promises of funding and rebuilding and so forth, it’s enough to read Roberto Saviano’s comments in The Independent. If you haven’t lived in Italy, it’s difficult to believe that things could go so wrong or be so corrupt (if you live in New Orleans, it’s probably less difficult to believe), but they do and they are. And that’s part of what gives Di Girolamo’s letter so much impact: When he says that what he wants is “an efficient national government,” he’s asking for a lot.

In writing that the Abruzzo earthquake would provide politicians with a “front” that could be used to “justify anything and everything,” Di Girolamo was also more than a little prescient. During an April 16 news conference, Prime Minister Berlusconi explained why it was impossible to combine the upcoming referendum with the scheduled elections for the European Parliament — one of Di Girolamo’s suggestions and a move that would save the government literally hundreds of millions of Euros.It couldn’t be done, Berlusconi said, because the Lega Nord, the powerful right-wing political party whose stated goal is to detach several northern regions from the rest of Italy and create a new country, Padania (see Lega Nord in Wiki for more information), threatened to call for a no-confidence vote in Parliament and cause the government to fall. It’s complicated, but basically the issue is that the referendum would be valid only if a certain percentage of voters show up to vote: the Lega Nord doesn’t want the referendum to pass and is worried that combining the elections would increase voter turnout and, thus, validate the referendum. Hence their threat.

To allow the government to fall at a time of economic crisis and when Italy was dealing with the aftereffects of a devastating earthquake, Berlusconi said, was out of the question. When a reporter directly asked Berlusconi whether it wasn’t an enormous waste of money to hold two elections, he responded, “Look, this doesn’t have anything to do with me and this is not the time for a question like that.” End of discussion.

Meanwhile, also on April 16, Radio Capital broadcast an investigative report on the collapse of the San Salvatore Hospital. The report revealed, among other things, that the firm responsible for building the hospital with faulty materials went bankrupt many years ago. Other construction firms and suppliers who worked on the hospital are still in business, however, but thanks to the Italian system of using subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, and sub-sub-subcontractors, ultimate responsibility for the shoddy construction may never be determined. The investigation and legal proceedings, in any case, would take at least ten years to conclude, at which point many of the claims would have to be dismissed because the statue of limitations would have run out.

One of the paradoxes of life in Italy is precisely this: that it is, at the very same moment, a modern, post-industrial, Western nation — and a third-world country.

* * * * * *

Not One Euro for the Earthquake in Abruzzo
by Giacomo Di Girolamo
English translation by ProvenWrite

You’ll have to forgive me, but I won’t be donating so much as a single cent toward the fund -raising efforts now underway for the victims of the earthquake in the Abruzzo. What I’m saying sounds like an obscenity, I know, and I also know that people normally flaunt the opposite position, with none of the modesty that charity requires.

But I’ve made up my mind. I won’t be making any telephone calls to toll-free numbers that extract a Euro from my account; I won’t be sending any “donate-a-Euro” text messages. From my end, there won’t be any bank transfers to special accounts set up for earthquake-relief. I don’t have a spare bedroom to offer, no summer house on the coast to open up to a needy family, no old clothes to donate, not even ones that have gone out of style.

I resisted the celebrity appeals, the minutes of silence at the soccer games, the statements by politicians, our Prime Minister being moved to tears on live TV. The television schedules turned topsy-turvy, the non-stop live broadcasts, the appeals superimposed on the screen during prime time—none of it made an impression on me. I’m not going to donate one single Euro. And I believe that’s the greatest gesture of civility that I, as an Italian, can make at a time like this.

I’m not going to donate so much as a Euro because the thing that is destroying this country is charity: the stereotype of the generous Italian, of that bungling populace guilty of every kind of foul-up and impropriety but which, in the midst of tragedy, is capable of spasms of generosity and is consequently forgiven everything. That’s the point: I’m sick and tired of that Italy. I want nothing more to be forgiven. Generosity, unfortunately, and with it charity, is a pretense. We’re still standing there, on the edge of that well in Vermicino in 1981, waiting to see whether little Alfred will make it out alive,[1] holding on to one another with all our might. The compassion we suffer from (and which we offer one another) is genuine. But we haven’t moved one single centimeter.

In fact, I believe that tragedies, all of them, can be anticipated. The wells covered over. The guilty parties identified. The damage repaired in a timely manner. I refuse to donate a dime, because I already pay my taxes. And what I pay is a lot. Those taxes already include money for rebuilding, for aid, for police, fire fighters, and other public safety measures. All of which winds up being spent for other things. And that, in turn, means that the police, fire fighters, and public-safety authorities turn to Italians for donations when they need money. I’m saying no. Go get the money out of all the illustrious tax cheats that permeate this country’s economy.

My taxes also pay for the courts whose job is supposed to be to figure out who is speculating on building safety, and which are supposed to be doing that job before catastrophes take place. With my taxes I also support an entire political establishment—all of them, at every level of government, incapable of accomplishing anything, not one single thing, unless you count putting themselves front-and-center whenever there’s a camera in sight.

Even the President of the Sicily Region, Raffaele Lombardo, went to visit the areas hit by the earthquake—a trip paid for, like all the others, by us, the taxpayers. But what was the point? Was there really any need for him to go?

I might have been able to come up with a Euro, or maybe even two. Then Berlusconi started talking about building a “New Town” in L’Aquila, and I thought about “Milano 2,”[2] about the lake with its swans, and about the neologism “new town.” Where did he get that from? Where did he read it? How long had he been mulling that one over?

A time of anguish like this can’t be allowed to be marked by silence. Everything has to be toyed with, reproduced for the spectator to consume. That’s where “New Town” comes from. It’s a brand name. Like Brooklyn Chewing Gum.[3]

I could have shelled out a few cents. Then I saw that even Renato Schifani had decided to pay a visit to the earthquake zone. The President of the Senate declared that “what we need at a time like this is a united political effort.” Amen to that. But don’t ask me to be on your side, because I’m not like you. I work. I don’t make my living from politics, on the backs of the community. While you, all of you, are responsible for what happened, because in one form or another you’ve governed the Italians and the ground they stand on for generation after generation, I am guilty of nothing. In fact, I’m in favor of justice. What you’re in favor of is the kind of solidarity that helps us forget about the fact that there isn’t any justice.

I’m not going to part with it, my Euro. Because I remembered my mother, who worked for the Italian government for forty years: In an entire year, her pension is worth what Schifani earns in a single month. So explain why I should fork over my Euro. To pay for what? Oh and by the way: When the Belice earthquake hit Western Sicily in 1968, my parents were deeply touched by what had happened, and donated some of their savings to the victims.

Then there was the earthquake in Irpinia in 1980, and once again my parents made a noble and symbolic donation through their post-office account. For the rebuilding. And we all know how that turned out.[4]

After Irpinia, there was the quake in Umbria in 1997. Then, in 2002, in San Giuliano di Puglia in Molise, where no one could have failed to be moved by the story of the classroom that collapsed on twenty-seven children, killing them and their teacher.

But now I’ve had enough. What’s the point of sending aid if everything goes on just the way it always has?

They’ve discovered, just the way decent journalists should do (now there’s a good way to spend a Euro—buy a newspaper written by decent journalists) that one of the schools that collapsed in L’Aquila was once actually a hotel. With the stroke of a pen, however, some obliging city bureaucrat decided to transform it into a school, regardless of the fact that it satisfied not even the minimum safety requirements for such a building.

In fact, in my own city, Marsala, there’s a school just like it, the largest one in the area: the Istituto Tecnico Commerciale. For thirty years it has been housed in a building that’s really a hotel transformed into a school. Not one safety requirement has ever been respected in this papier-mâché building with 600 students. To date, the Province of Trapani has spent nearly €7 million in rent on that school, where—just to give one example—the asbestos subceiling in the gym collapsed last October during a sirocco. (A sirocco!! Not an earthquake! A sirocco! Is there a Richter Scale for south-easters? Should we invent one?)

So that’s where my Euro went—drowned along with all those other millions of Euros—my one Euro of shame for the members of a political establishment who are incapable of making decisions, unless it’s the decision to line their own pockets without the slightest restraint and to pay their pals back by making sure they get rich, too.

I was just about to send off my one-Euro solidarity SMS, and then I heard them bragging on the Tg1 newscast about the exceptional audience shares they’d been receiving during their live broadcasts from the earthquake zone. Since I also pay for the public television service with my annual license fee, my feeling is that I’m already doing them a favor if I don’t ask for my money back after hearing an atrocity like that.

palazzo_del_governoI won’t donate a dime for the towns ravaged by the earthquake. And I don’t want anyone else’s money if something should happen to me. What I want is an efficient national government, one in which it isn’t only the craftiest and the slipperiest who run things. And since I already know that nothing like that is going to come to pass, I also believe that the earthquake will turn into a great big lottery landslide for politicians. Now they all have the perfect excuse not to talk about anything else. Now no one can criticize the government or the majority political party (which is all of them, even the ones in the opposition), because there’s the earthquake to think about. Just as with 9/11, the earthquake and the situation in the Abruzzo are going to be the front that is used to justify anything and everything.

Thousands of resources are wasted in this country every day. If only it truly wanted to, the national government knows where it could get the money to help the earthquake refugees: by freezing politicians’ salaries for a year, or the salaries of the “super managers”; by combining the next European parliamentary elections with the upcoming referendum, rather than funding two national elections. Those are the first ideas that come to mind. Every time I think of something else, I’m that much more enraged.

I’m not going to donate a dime. Instead, I’m giving the best help I can: my outrage, my indignation. In these difficult days, I want to assert my right as an Italian to live in a house that is safe. And the rage welling up inside me turns to tears when I hear people say “something like this would never have happened in Japan,” as if the Japanese had discovered something new, as if know-how was the exclusive province of the Land of the Rising Sun. Every engineering student with a freshly printed university degree understands how a building ought to be constructed. What happens is that they’re made to forget as they exercise their profession.

I cry in my rage because it is always the poorest people who die, and in the televised pandemonium there’s not even one single poet with the greatness of a Pasolini to tell us how things really are, to gather together the pain and anguish of the least among us. This country has killed all of them, all the poets, or else it’s allowed them to die of boredom.

But today, here, I feel Italian, a poor man among poor men and women, and I demand the right to have my say.

In the end, just the way that nature does when it causes the earth to move.


[1] Life in Italy came to a halt on June 10, 1981, when, for some 60 hours, live television broadcasts from Vermicino (near Rome), tracked superman efforts to free a six-year-old boy, Alfredo Rampi, who had fallen 180 feet into an uncovered artesian well. The events were followed by some 21 million Italians and, when the rescue efforts proved futile, the entire nation was plunged into mourning.

[2] Milano 2 is a planned “new town” or “supercondo” community in Segrate, in the suburbs of Milan , built and financed in the 1970s by firms owned by Silvio Berlusconi. The built-in TV network installed throughout Milano 2 helped Berlusconi launch his television empire as well, and he used his own television channels to market Milano 2 to upper-middle-class families. One of Milano 2’s features is an artificial lake, frequently used as a location for shooting TV programs and commercials.

[3] Brooklyn “the chewing gum with the bridge on the package,” was introduced in Italy in 1969. The massive advertising campaign that followed earned its producer, the Perfetti Van Melle group, a market share of 90%.

[4] The allusion here is to the fact that, following the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, reconstruction and repair efforts quickly became a lucrative business opportunity for organized crime, which controlled contractors and contracts, supplies and suppliers, etc. An article in the 15 April 2009 The Independent contains more background on what took place.


Posted on 17 April 2009, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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