Robert Katz’s History of Modern Italy
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The Death of a Statesman:
Aldo Moro and the Unspoken Terrorism

Like the thrall of the Kennedy assassination in America, the Aldo Moro story has haunted Italy for decades. The differences between the two cases are fundamental, but on March 16, 1978, Rome was Dallas. Moro was a vigorous 61 years old, the most powerful political figure in Italy, when his car and escort sped off that sunstruck morning in Rome into an urban guerrilla ambush. Pulled from the carnage of his Aldo Moro, Rome, May 9, 1978five bodyguards, he spent the next 54 days in a suspiciously elusive "people's prison," later revealed as a tiny room in an apartment only a few miles from where he lived and the seat of his governance. On the morning of May 9, he was slain by his captors but by then he had already been pronounced politically dead and buried by his own party and his own men - the power-brokers of Rome. Few would argue otherwise today, but not then. In the Dallas killing, conspiracy theories have remained unproved, but not in the Moro case. From the moment the dead man was put to rest, an uneasy national conscience began to ask: Why, alone among all the terrorist crimes in Italy, was no effort made to rescue the prisoner either by force or negotiation? Since the mid-1980s, powerful evidence of official misdoing and coverup emerged. 1 Again, hardly anyone would dispute this now; even fewer, I suspect, care to recall anything more than the catchphrase, anni di piombo - or "Years of Lead." Yet it is precisely that unspoken side of terrorism that holds lessons for these times. Much of what was and remains unspoken may be gleaned from this book excerpt — the first of a series: the introduction to Days of Wrath: the Ordeal of Aldo Moro, written in the year following the Moro killing. Although, not a word has been changed, I've added updating footnotes.  — RK

Aldo Moro was kidnapped in an urban guerrilla ambush on the morning of March 16, 1978 by the Red Brigades. He was murdered on the morning of May 9 as he looked into the eyes of two particularly cold-blooded killers of the Red Brigades.2 In the intervening fifty-four days he was annihilated by a community of men of power of which he was a member.

He was annihilated in the strictest sense of the word: to remove the force of; to reduce to nothing - by a government of his own creation, by the political party over which he presided, by the first parliamentary majority in the Atlantic alliance hinged to Eurocommunist power, by an aggregate of mass media looting truth in a news grey-out and, finally, by an astonishingly uncritical consensus of world opinion led to believe that some Great Principle of Democracy was the price of the prisoner’s freedom.

The reasons for his annihilation were wholly impersonal. To be sure, there were indications that he might be forced by his captors to “talk.” Apart from the fear this generated among his fellow politicians in a country harboring many potential scandals, the intelligence services of this and other member nations of NATO were concerned about what the five-time Prime Minister might reveal. But the custody of state and supra-national secrets was only a small factor. The greatest threat posed by the capture of the most powerful man in Italy was simply Moro’s will to survive.

The actual Deciders, including those publicly accused by Mrs. Moro of having by acts of omission ratified her husband’s death sentence, behaved certainly without malice, and in most cases went against the deepest wishes of their hearts. The making of a non-person of Aldo Moro, his physical and moral abandonment by society’s forced withdrawal of his integrity, was determined by a curious conjunction of time and the vicissitudes of power. From the moment the Red Brigades laid their hands upon his substance as a human being, he began to be transformed into the statue that will one day stand in some Roman piazza bearing his name.

Moro’s power, however formidable were the forces arrayed against it, was not easily recalled. From his cell in an elusive, desolate “people’s prison,” he waged a complex, highly articulate and ingenious battle for his life. He succeeded in engaging not only the fullest energies of his family and friends who did not conform to the way of the juggernaut (notably the Pope, two ex-presidents of the republic, and the United Nations Secretary-General), but also, as will be seen, a part of the Red Brigades themselves.

He refused the stage-managed martyr’s role proffered by his peers. There could be no glory in dying for the pastiche of special interests that held sway in Rome. There was only the dignity of campaigning well for life in his own intensely political style, and when he understood that he had lost - in advance of those who were fighting on his side - he damned his false mourners, absolved no one of responsibility, and said a simple last farewell. He died an anti-hero, a hero of his time.

This is a report on his struggle and his death. It is a story - as much as a series of blood-letting truths can resemble a story - of how a powerful man and his family were locked together by a combination of circumstances into direct conflict with a political force of his own making, and how that man and his family responded. What began, in terms of a story, as high melodrama - a startling coup de main on a sun-struck street in Rome - was turned by the wrench of dramatic irony into a pure tragedy worthy of a bardic pen.

I have no such pen, but I was drawn into taking a more than passing interest in these events by the repeated observation that the aspects of the case referred to above were being overlooked. Moreover, after it was all over, the world applauded a hitherto untried strategy of confrontation with political terrorism, which had in fact been totally misunderstood. When the Washington Post, for example, wrote while commending the new strategy that Moro’s kidnappers deliberately forced him “deeper and deeper into psychological breakdown, advertising the stages of their progress by publishing his increasingly distraught and desperate letters” it revealed how remote it was from what had happened in Rome, as well as how successfully Rome had covered up. A grave injustice was being compounded into an historical error, and a dangerous precedent had been set on an international scale.

I was in Rome for all Aldo Moro’s fifty-four days. Not that I necessarily believe that those who are present and involved in events are better placed than others to judge. On the contrary, the opposite is closer to the truth, which is why the administration of justice and the writing of history, for instance, are the natural dominions of disinterested parties only. Indeed, my only claim to objectivity is the alien eye through which I followed the case at close hand. Normally, the only events I “cover” are those that happened long ago or have never happened at all. On the day Aldo Moro was kidnapped, although I like everyone else in Rome became aware of the news almost instantly in multiple, tangible ways, I was on my way to a quiet corner of the city to work on a story that took place in Rome four hundred years ago. I was in a different time frame, and after being momentarily shaken by the present, I was more content than ever to return there. In the years I had lived in Italy, I had had only two relatively close encounters with Moro, neither of which had altered my prejudice that he was precisely as he had been portrayed with devastating wit by the great Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté in a film called Todo Modo. In that film, the Moro character, the symbol of a decadent Christian Democracy, is eliminated in the end by his party’s corrupters, the CIA. Had I not been lost in the days of the Counter-Reformation, I might have wondered how much truth there was in what many Romans were saying, that Todo Modo had been prophecy in the can.

For I, like the distinguished author of the novel on which the film was based, Leonardo Sciascia, was yet to discover who Aldo Moro really was.

For a time, it was only on my brief but daily trips to the frantic present that I noticed something amiss in Rome, but when Aldo Moro’s letters began to arrive from the people’s prison, I knew by the response of the men of power that a wicked fear had grabbed the Italian boot, and someone was bound to fall.

Little happens in Italy that is not linked to the aims of one or another political party, and here was a situation, I was perhaps last to realize, where the principal aims of all the main parties coincided. This was especially true for the super-parties - the ruling Christian Democrats and the most powerful Communist party in the West.

On the day Moro was kidnapped a new government was to be empowered, and the parliamentary majority on which it was to be based was the broadest in the history of postwar Italy. It included, after thirty years of ostracism, the Communists, who by a few percentage points had been second only to the Christian Democrats at the polls. Their entry into the majority on 16 March was the result of delicate statecraft which Moro himself had contrived. Thus he had become the target of the Red Brigades, who had timed his capture to his twenty-minute drive to Parliament to give his blessing to the new government’s accession.

The Communists, who had gained access to state power on promises of defending democracy, now sought with frenzy to disassociate themselves from the Communism of the Red Brigades. They rushed forward to proclaim themselves the staunchest protectors of the state, its institutions and law and order. The Christian Democrats, whatever their individual sentiments towards their captured leader, could do no less; and so the race to the hard line was on. Indeed, this heartless, intractable stance that was to dominate all the events leading (inexorably, one sees now) to Moro’s slaying emerged almost at once. Backed internationally, especially by the United States and West Germany (for reasons, I was later to discover, that had little to do with Italy and the case in question), it left no room for flexibility. From the beginning, one was either a hawk or a dupe of the Red Brigades. All criticism of the official line was trampled down, and the biggest critic of all, Aldo Moro, was said to be pathologically mad.

Giorgio Bocca, an independently minded Italian journalist, painted this picture shortly after Moro’s death:

On March 16, the facade [of a free press] came down and one could see how the transmission of information really worked. The political parties, the owners or the patrons of the newspapers and television made the decisions and the editors carried them out. Hypocrisy, lies, exaggerations, and outright inventions, which a few days earlier would have been considered unacceptable, were sent to the composing room and printed without the slightest protest. The dissidents, rather than be marginalized, fell into line; the columnists, rather than be censored, censored themselves. The majority view, everyone knew, was inspired by the interests of the two great parties of power: the Christian Democrats and the Communists . . . the general tenor was, “He who is not with us is either a scoundrel or a friend of the enemy.

had personally witnessed this sort of thing in other countries, in India and Bangladesh, in Eastern Europe, and in my own country during the Vietnam war and in the ‘fifties, but Italy after Mussolini had lost its taste for intolerance. As this was the first time such a reaction had been engendered by modern political terrorism, from which no country appears to be immune, it seemed worthy of attention. Foreigners, I think, tend to hone the sense that sniffs out freedom in trouble.

Early in April, I put my rummaging of the sixteenth century away and began to watch the events in Rome more carefully than before. It was, however, quite difficult to learn anything that was not in the newspapers and, like the atmosphere, the newspapers were exactly as Bocca described them. Nevertheless, there was an information underground of sorts. It had its origins in the Moro family’s need to communicate what the mass media refused to convey. The more the affair hurtled towards its climax, the more elaborate and accessible was the counter-news. I will speak of all this in its proper place, but it was not until the terrible end, or weeks later, when tensions even for those who truly grieved began to subside, that I was able to really begin the work of sorting fact from fancy.

My task was made easier by a number of factors. The first was the onset of contrition. Many people were suddenly taken with sorrow for having sowed the hard line to reap nothing, and some, although far from all, were now quite willing to talk. In the same vein the press, among other amends, assigned some of its best investigative reporters to retrace the fifty-four days in an unjaundiced way.

Second was the slight shift in the political balance of power caused by local elections in May. This brought about some in-fighting in the capital which would have been of little interest to outsiders had not its internal logic forced the steady leakage of almost all the known secret documents in the Moro case. .

Finally, I was in a somewhat privileged position. Over the years I had developed my own sources of information in Rome, which is nothing unusual for a person of my profession, except that many of these sources had been and still were in touch with the protagonists in the Moro case. A small number had themselves been protagonists. As a result, I was favored with much unpublished material and was able to make contact with circles still completely closed, particularly the Moro family and the Red Brigades.

This is not to say, however, that the reader has in his or her hands anything resembling a definitive work on the case of Aldo Moro. Unfortunately, that book will be a long time coming. Many circles or inner circles remain more than closed; they are sealed from justice and shame. What has been attempted here is an initial effort to straighten the doctored record of events that weighed so heavily in those days and seems now more than ever in need of review. This hardly ensures that I have managed to entirely avoid adding new error to old, but my work is based exclusively on all that is known and what I have come to know in the course of my research. I have given no space to my imagination nor credit to anybody’s fiction.

Even so I, too, am obliged to keep certain confidences. The Moro case is hot. His killers are at large. The fortunes of men and women are still in play. Wounds of mind, body and soul have yet to heal. Blood matters of life or death are real in the most literal sense. Let the reader be assured, however, that nothing of what I am not at liberty to disclose would alter the substance of this report. For reasons of prudence, requests for anonymity and, above all, due respect for the Moro family’s self-imposed reserve, I ask the reader’s indulgence wherever I fail to satisfy a natural curiosity about certain intimate details. As for my sources, I have, in the customary fashion, and within the limits cited, indicated the origins of everything that follows.

It is a narrative of the world’s second experience with a universal Confusion of Tongues.

Rome, March 16, 1979

1 Infiltration of the highest levels of government by a secret organization known as P-2, with an intent to overthrow Italian democracy, has been established beyond doubt. Moro’s political agenda was anathema to P-2 and it was in a position to do something about it when he was kidnapped. The long work of the parliamentary commission investigating the case disclosed that P-2 members directly responsible for the search operations during Moro's captivity included the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and the Navy, the heads of the intelligence services, the head of the war room, high police officials conducting the field investigations, and the Interior Minister's closest civilian advisers. The evidence further suggests that they succeeded in locating the Rome apartment where Moro was being held prisoner, but did nothing about it, and may even have shielded it from local police dragnet operations.

2 It was not until 1994 that the actual killer, one man alone, confessed. See related Time Capsule, "The Man Who Killed Aldo Moro."

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