The Italianist

Things That Happen in Italy

The Right to Throw Things at Politicians

with 2 comments

In the last 24hours, probably the entire world has witnessed the image of Berlusconi’s face covered in blood after being hit by an object thrown at him by a person, during a public meeting. I have to admit, Berlusconi yesterday looked much scarier than he normally does, and one can’t but feel deeply distressed in seeing a 73-year old man bleeding from his mouth.  Of course, now the debate is all about condemning those who are not condemning Massimo Tartaglia, the guy who threw the object at Berlusconi, and those who are not worried by “the climate of hatred” in Italy. Most of the newspapers in Italy point to yesterday’s event  as the symbol of a worrying increase in political violence, one which signals the necessity of more civilised forms of political confrontation.

This is all sound. No one wants political violence, nor to see on TV old people bleeding from their mouth, especially at dinner time. It doesn’t take a political scientist to realize that Tartaglia’s action cannot find space in a liberal democracy, nor that his behaviour can be considered to any extent part of a political dialogue. Yet, it seems to me that the debate after the attack on Berlusconi is already aiming at the equation “dissent = violence”. Massimo Tartaglia is certainly not a political activist: he is described as a person under therapy for mental instability, and with no political affiliation. He is, so to speak, a mere man from the street, who unfortunately decided to do something really stupid.

However, I think we should ask ourselves why what Tartaglia did was stupid. Clearly, the answer is that he endangered the life of a person: had Berlusconi been hit on the head and not on the face, probably the images shown on TV yesterday would have been much worse. Instead, luckily, after being hit Berlusconi was still in a condition good enough (a) to tell his driver to stop the car rushing him to the hospital, (b) get out (c) pose for the photographers for a good 20 seconds, (d) go back into the car, yet always making sure cameras were on him. Probably that was the extreme effort before the collapse.. Some may point out that his security service has a very strange way to operate (shouldn’t they have taken him away as soon as possible?), but today is not the day to express dissent.

So, Tartaglia’s fault is that he threw an object (btw, a statuette of Milan’s Duomo) that could have seriously injured a 73-years old, to the point of killing him (luckily, Berlusconi is immortal). There is no need to have a debate on this. However, there is an underlying question that puzzles me:  is it wrong to throw things at politicians? Is there anything intrinsically wrong in hating them? Of course one should not act upon that hatred, by it seems that one has a right to hate whoever in foro interno. All the discussion in Italy is revolving around who instigated this ‘climate of hatred’ against Berlusconi: there is no asking why there is such hatred.

It’s a shame that Tartaglia threw at Berlusconi’s face something that could have killed the Italian PM: this goes against the idea of a democracy. One might be less dismissive of political violence, were one to consider that Italy is not even a nearly just society. Violence may be unjustifiable under a regime that allows for political change and, most of all, for the accountability of its political leaders: yet, one could say that where these conditions are not guaranteed, for example where dissent is silenced, or where political leaders are not accountable for their behaviour, things might be different. Under such circumstances, responsible citizens, committed to the values of democracy, might have to recur to violence against an abuse of power that represents a progressive deviation from the ideals of democratic life. Citizens might have to use violence for the sake of democracy.

However, suppose that Italy has a political regime where violence against political leaders is not justifiable. In fact, at the end of the day Italy still has a lot of freedom, compared to undemocratic regimes, and people still do not get shot in the street. So, once again, Tartaglia’s throwing a statuette at the PM is an impermissible action (from a democratic point of view).

But what if Tartaglia had thrown something else, like some vegetables maybe? Or maybe something that may hurt a lot but not harm, like a shoe? Or maybe a tripod?

If Tartaglia had done that, I think we should be talking of ‘good citizens’, people who expose themselves in first person to remind politicians that they are not untouchable, that they have to account for their behaviour as elected rulers of a country. Unfortunately, things yesterday went differently, and we ended up with an old man bleeding from his mouth: that deserves condemnation, and shows the irresponsibility (and probably exasperation..) of Massimo Tartaglia’s act. If we have a right to throw things at politicians in protest, then that right cannot cover things that can crush the politician’s skull.

Violence has no place in a democracy: let’s listen to the Italian Government’s appeal against violence then. Let’s not ruin their endless effort to enhance peace and democracy.


Written by TheItalianist

14/12/2009 at 19:33

2 Responses

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  1. Good stuff. I like this thing about being at liberty to hate others (not only politicians). That’s why I believe that hate crimes should not exist as a matter of positive legislation (in other words, there should not be hate crimes…only crimes).

    But I wonder about this: “But what if Tartaglia had thrown something else, like some vegetables maybe? Or maybe something that may hurt a lot but not harm, like a shoe? Or maybe a tripod? If Tartaglia had done that, I think we should be talking of ‘good citizens’”.

    Let’s leave the tripod aside since a tripod can obviously harm someone very badly. Let’s include spitting instead. I think that, morally and legally speaking, there should be no difference in kind (in the context of a minimally decent democracy) between throwing a shoe, a lettuce or saliva against those who you hate (and even against those who you love). To me all these look like a certain form of assault or harassment (a mild one, surely). Of course, how much we should condemn these different actions may vary (should vary) depending on how much I harm my victim and how much risk my action involved against the victim. But these differences, again, refer to the quantity of harm inflicted (or risked) and not to the very nature of the action. This is to say that spitting at people (including those like Berlusconi), throwing shoes or lettuces is not something to be praised as the action of ‘good citizens’. By the same token, throwing a rock, a replica of Il Duomo or a copy of the Bible against someone else is something much more risky that may deserve a different condemnation but, again, to me it looks like a form of assault.

    But of course you have a point regarding ‘making your voice heard’. However, why not rather organize people and protest out loud. That looks like a much better way to put forward a message than spitting at people. One may claim this is not possible in Italy’s today context (is this then a minimally decent democracy?). If that is the case (i) there is something very wrong there, but (ii) this does not touch the fact that spitting at people or throwing things is a condemnable act (perhaps much less condemnable than not allowing peaceful protest though).

    Too long…I know. Forza Moretti!


    14/12/2009 at 21:48

    • Alfonso, good point, and I know the idea of throwing stuff at politicians may a) still be a form of assault and b) be just weird overall.. Yet, I think I tend to see this kind of attacks (those that “do not cause serious physical harm”) as a form of ‘speech act’ – non-verbal acts that aim to convey a message (to ‘communicate’, rather than to merely ‘express’. I’m not gonna quote Duff, but he explains that distinction quite nice somewhere..). In my view throwing rubbish at a politician could be justifiable as is to damage someone’s property in civil disobedience: in both cases, an illegal act is ‘justified’ (not ‘excused’) in virtue of their political aims. When dealing with a corrupt leader, the political aim might be to communicate that citizens do not accept being treated merely as an ‘audience’ of the leader’s performance, but have an impact on the liberty that an elected representative can exercise as a politician.
      I agree that people should protest loud. When Berlusconi was hit by the statuette, he had just finished a long speech in which he had attacked (as usual) the judges and the (two) journalists that dare criticise him. A group of people started contesting him, loudly. In return, he began to yell at them “Shame on you! Shame on you! You offend democracy!”, and the (peaceful) protesters were removed by the police. He is definitely not making an effort to reduce the amount of division in the country.. But that’s a different story.
      Thanks for being always on the spot! I know this is too short, but tomorrow is departure day.. Cheers.


      14/12/2009 at 23:49

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