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On Being a Cop

Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and a contributor to Commonweal and La Croix International. His most recent book is Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.

Here in America, the sight of a patrol car and the thought of a traffic stop arouse a mixture of feelings in me: on the one hand, the fear of inadvertently doing something wrong that could trigger an armed reaction; on the other hand, the feeling of camaraderie with someone who is doing what I did for one year in Italy in the mid-Nineties. 

Between 1992 and 1993 I was in my third year at the University of Bologna, trying to decide what to do about my military service, which back then was still obligatory. At that point I had received a deferment until the completion of my undergraduate degree. I was very involved (not to say very absorbed) by my ministry in the Italian Catholic Boy and Girl Scouts Association, the largest youth Catholic organization in Italy, and many of my older friends had chosen some alternative to military service; I too had considered that option for a long time. I had grown up in the pacifist culture of post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, especially in the 1980s of the “Euromissiles” and anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Then, between 1992 and 1993, the mafia in Italy started a bombing campaign directed against judges, journalists, and churches—everyone who objected to the social and political grip that the mafia still had on Italy, and not just in Sicily. I received the news of one of those bombings, which killed Paolo Borsellino, a judge in Palermo, on July 19, 1992 when I was attending a one-week course on biblical Hebrew at the monastery of Camaldoli in Tuscany. It was one of those moments that made me decide to choose military service. I did not choose, however, to serve in the regular army, where I would have been trained to fight in a war that did not involve Italy, unlike those against the mafia and, during the “Years of Lead” in the 1970s, against communist and neo-fascist domestic political terrorists. The post-Cold War geopolitical situation was stable; the challenges that would appear after 2001 were far away. Instead I chose to serve for one year in the Carabinieri, the “first corps” of the Italian army: the part of the military tasked mainly with keeping up a visible presence in the cities and, especially, the small towns of the peninsula.

My training took three months in a big military complex together with eight-hundred-some other young men (most of them younger than me) in southern Italy, near Naples. It focused on two disciplines: firearms and the law. The latter included the penal code, but also the basics of constitutional law, such as the separation of powers and habeas corpus. Top officers of the Carabinieri in the 1960s had been rumored to be part of the failed plots to overthrow the constitutional democracy and install a military regime, so the training was also aimed at instilling the rudiments of constitutional patriotism. I succeeded in obtaining a permit to drive the patrol car in the two-officer patrols (back then, only male; women were accepted in the force after 1999) that have become part of the iconography of bella Italia. It was the 1990s but, in some sense, it was like living in the 1950s. During our time at a barracks in a deeply Catholic and socially conservative part of Italy, it felt as if the Second Vatican Council had never happened. When some of the recruits were confirmed (in southern Italy there is the tradition of being confirmed later, around the age of eighteen or nineteen) we were all loaded on the bus to go to Mass with the bishop: all of us, whether you were a Catholic, an atheist, or a lazy person. I also never went to confession during those three months when I heard that the military chaplain was more inclined to give absolution if you gave him some money. But in the last month of the training, I joined thousands of other military personnel from all over the world in the annual international military pilgrimage to Lourdes, an eye-opening experience for this progressive Vatican II Catholic. The Arma dei Carabinieri still has the Virgo Fidelis as its patron saint.

At the end of the training, all of us received our commissions. Contrary to my wishes, I wasn’t sent to fight the mafia in southern Italy or in Rome, but instead to a small town in northern Italy, not very far from home. I was the youngest in a Carabinieri station in one of the poorest areas of one of the most affluent regions of Italy. Most of the business in the streets involved traffic and paperwork (e.g., firearm permits). Crimes did not extend beyond drug possession, petty theft, and domestic violence: rarely armed robberies or something more serious. That was the average situation in an average small town in the region. In many cases where there were difficult personal or family situations; mine was something very close to what the Church calls pastoral work. Not coincidentally, our station was right next to the parish church and in front of the pharmacy. 

Unlike in America, almost no one in Italy owns guns except hunters and criminals—and police officers. Despite some changes in recent years, Italy still has pretty strict laws governing the possession of firearms: more than twenty-five years of right-wing governments (beginning with Silvio Berlusconi in 1994) have not fundamentally changed the culture surrounding guns in Italy. The state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. True stories of guns buried by anti-fascists at the end of the Second World War and passed down to the rebels of younger generations in the 1960s and 1970s never gave birth to a myth of gun ownership as a defense against a tyrannical state. On the contrary: in the collective memory of Italians, the armed corps of the state were the “well-regulated militia” that, with the help of the justice system and elected politicians, defeated terrorists. The Italian state—and the police forces—won because they defended the constitution by embracing the rule of law, not by taking exceptional or extrajudicial measures. 

One fundamental difference between policing in Italy when I served and in the United States today was divergence in expectations about the circulation of guns. In Italy when I made a traffic stop I knew it was extremely unlikely that the person in the car would be armed. This was a basic assumption during the firearms training we received: the monopoly on force was held by legitimately armed corps acting on behalf of the state—that is, of the community. The low rate of gun ownership among the population meant that they were rarely used by the police with deadly force. Despite more than sixty years of Hollywood movies, telefilm, and television series that have glorified guns, the political philosophy undergirding the Second Amendment is almost incomprehensible for Italians and, indeed, most Europeans. For Italians the word “militia” calls to mind the paramilitary units that facilitated not only Mussolini’s rise to power, but Hitler’s also.

Another difference: while in Italy there are certainly significant (and tragic) disparities in how the justice system treats the rich and powerful on the one hand and the poor on the other, the country is still more egalitarian than the United States because social and economic inequality is less absolute. Citizens are less inclined to buy and possess weapons for self-defense, which in Italy is legal but still rare and requires a permit. Also, the family plays a large role in Italian society and culture, but tribalism does not. Buying or owning a gun in Italy is still seen as suspicious by most people, if it is not stigmatized outright. If being a gun owner is a signifier in Italy, it is not a good one, and not just among the leftists, but also among Catholics.

Finally, in Italy the cultural suspicion of guns extends even to hunters, whose numbers are in constant decline. Wild boars, wolves, and bears have come back near the cities in recent years (including some neighborhoods of Rome), but Italians tamed the wilderness already centuries ago in a way that Americans have not, for both historical and geographical reasons: the sheer size of the land and the different history of its settlement. There is no frontier and there hasn’t been one for centuries: Italy is much smaller, much more inhabited and “anthropized.” The culture of hunting started to meet with disapproval in urban and younger populations beginning in the 1960s, not simply because it kills animals but also because it involves firearms. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in this suspicion of firearms, given that Italy is a major producer and exporter of weapons (including heavy weapons) to many countries. Italy exports these weapons not only the United States but also to nations at war (Saudi Arabia, for example, which is currently engaged in Yemen). The Church and the Catholic press are among the very few talking about this moral issue. 

I am the last one who wants to idealize Italian police forces, which have existed  in the Italian republic since 1945. They have certainly been guilty at times of excessive use of force, not only in individual cases, but in their occasional insistence upon the restoration of older prerogatives with the support of sympathetic right-wing governments. (The most infamous of these cases was the handling of public order at the Group of Eight summit at Genoa, in July 2001—strangely enough, while I was hitchhiking between monasteries and churches in Syria). An innocent young man died in police custody in my hometown of Ferrara a few years ago. In recent years such cases have forced the political establishment and the justice system to reckon with police violence and made politicians reluctant to endorse an agenda that is favorable to gun rights. 

Historically in Italy the Carabinieri have been perceived as less inclined to use force unnecessarily in comparison with, say, the Polizia di Stato, a police force that was demilitarized and became civilian in 1981. One cannot call the Carabinieri left-wing, but the reputation of the Polizia was certainly one of officers who were far more sympathetic to a culture of “law and order” not free from authoritarian undertones. Being part of the Italian army has set the Carabinieri apart, along with the absence of police unions (not comparable to the ones in the United States) and harsher military laws against members of the force in cases of corruption. The Carabinieri are associated with rural and small-town Italy, where there is less crime. The Carabinieri have investigative units, elite and special forces, but what is most typical of their work is community policing. The commander of the local station of the Carabinieri in Italian small towns used to be part of the pantheon of local authorities: the doctor, the pharmacist, the parish priest, and the maresciallo dei Carabinieri. This is a world that has been immortalized in novels and films: a traditional and Tridentine Catholic Italy, a strange place where there are shrines with names like the Madonna of the Tangerines, patron saint of the thieves—or better, a shrine where they say thieves go to pray.