March 16, 2005
Roman Tragedy

By Debra Saunders

Fuoco amico is the Italian term for friendly fire. Those words appeared frequently in Italian newspapers last week as Rome buried a hero, Nicola Calipari, the Italian intelligence agent who was shot to death by American troops at an Iraqi checkpoint after he freed an Italian hostage earlier this month.

News accounts reported that the tragic death had increased anger toward America and toward Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for sending 3,000 troops to Iraq. As I was vacationing in Rome last week, I decided to go to where Calipari's funeral was being held. As an American, I wanted to thank Calipari for his sacrifice, and I wanted to hear for myself what Italians had to say.

As I arrived at the Piazza della Repubblica, I saw thousands of people who, like me, walked to the square in silence and alone, then found a place to stand and quietly thank a man they had never met. There were no chants, no shouts, only polite applause when the casket arrived, when they saw Calipari's family and when the entourage drove away.

I experienced the quietest two hours I have ever spent in a crowd of thousands.

When it was over, I asked an American journalist what folks in the crowd were telling her. They are really angry at America, she told me. I was surprised. In the two hours I stood there, I never once heard Italians muttering about President Bush, Estati Uniti, Americani. I had not seen one political sign. In fact, I saw only one sign, written by a woman who saluted Calipari as nobile and valoroso and placed him among the angels.

Several times, I overheard Italians use the word journalista, although my Italian wasn't good enough to figure out what they said about my profession.

The most relevant journalista wasn't there. Giuliana Sgrena, who became a hostage in Iraq as she covered what she called "that dirty war" for the communist daily Il Manifesto, was in an Italian hospital recovering from a shrapnel wound.

Be it noted, I saw only three copies of Il Manifesto at the piazza. This was not a gathering of Sgrena groupies -- despite the fact that Sgrena had spent the weekend posturing as Calipari's champion. She boasted that she told Calipari's widow she would get to the truth of what happened.

The truth.

As soon as she returned from Iraq, Sgrena penned a piece for Il Manifesto on the incident -- La Mia Verita, or in English, "my truth" -- thus confirming my rule in life to never trust anyone who claims ownership of The Truth with a capital T. (Or V.)

Sgrena wrote that her captors warned her to beware of the Americans, who "don't want you to go back." In a later interview, Sgrena said she could not rule out that she was the U.S. troops' real target.

Sgrena also wrote that she spent her early days in captivity "simply furious" and confronting her kidnappers because they snatched her even though she opposed the war. "It's easy to kidnap a weak woman like me. Why don't you try with the American military?"

A Department of Defense source later told The Washington Times: "We had (counter-terrorism) people looking for her. They were willing to risk their lives, and all you hear from her is criticism of American troops."

With Calipari's corpse still warm, Sgrena couldn't find it in herself to criticize the men whose actions triggered the events that led to Calipari's death -- other than to berate their choice of hostages and note that "sometimes they made fun of me." Her Truth takes no notice of the brutality of Iraq's terrorists, of their many victims. If America isn't to blame, then it is not an outrage.

Nor did it seem to bother her that her kidnappers may have emerged millions richer. Eight million dollars, $10 million or niente, as the Italian government says? -- a nice reward that can only encourage more kidnappings.

You've heard the reports of how Italians are skeptical of the initial U.S. version of events. I, too, have trouble believing that the checkpoint guards gave sufficient warning to the Italians, who oddly chose to ignore them and speed toward the checkpoint. Besides, no matter what the details turn out to be, there can be no satisfactory explanation for fuoco amico.

Italians also are skeptical of Giuliana Sgrena. Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini dismissed her talk of being the target of an ambush as "groundless," while other officials suggested she was mistaken due to the stress of being kidnapped.

I think this Eric Hoffer quote sums her up best: "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them." Worse, when she licked her captors' boots, she called it Truth.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

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Debra J. Saunders
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