Friday, July 28, 2006

Excellent Deaths

One evening in the middle of July, 1992, we were going out to a sagra. These are summer 'festivals', really just country dances held over two or three nights in most villages and towns. We were in the Muggello, north-east of Florence, we being my family and my parents over to visit us from the Old Country. A sagra offers a pleasant evening out - lots of food (though, unfortunately for my wife, it's mostly meat) and dancing, almost exclusively 3-step with a live accordianist and backing. And they're outdoors, so the kids can run.

We found our way to San Piero Sieve without great difficulty, parked and went to join the fun. Only there didn't seem to be much of it. All the elements were present - lots of people, the smell of food and smoke in the air with the waltz-time accordian. But subdued. Everything but the enjoyment. People were speaking quietly; only the youngest children were running. Something had happened somewhere to someone. But what, where and who to matter so much to so many? I asked.

The Sicilian Mafia had rid themselves of an enemy in the crudest and most effective way: a massive car bomb that killed Paolo Borsellino and five of the six bodyguards assigned to him outside the house of his mother. Just two months before, they had killed his friend and colleague, Giovanni Falcone, by the same means. Borsellino, like Falcone, had known he was a dead man walking. For together they had taken a step that most thought would never be taken: they took defendants to court for the crime, only recently put on the statute books, of belonging to the Mafia - 474 defendants charged as well with 120 murders, drug trafficking, and extortion. 360 were convicted.

Both Falcone and Borsellino were very impressive men of a steadfastness that had to endure all the frustrations and dangers of a system corrupt almost to the core. Their deaths made them icons of resistence to the tyranny of lawlessness and swayed public opinion so powerfully that the deservedy-maligned state started at last to make the Mafia lords squeal.

A good article from Slate which also reviews a new documentary, Excellent Cadavers, about Falcone and a book by Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily, a more wide ranging look at that cursed island and its history. Wikipedia entries about Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

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