By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXXIII. MUSOLINO AND THE LAW
Musolino will remain a hero for many long years to come. “He did his duty “: such is the popular verdict on his career. He was not a brigand, but an unfortunate–a martyr, a victim of the law. So he is described not only by his country-people, but by the writers of many hundred serious pamphlets in every province of Italy.
At any bookstall you may buy cheap illustrated tracts and poems setting forth his achievements. In Cosenza I saw a play of which he was the leading figure, depicted as a pale, long-suffering gentleman of the “misunderstood" type–friend of the fatherless, champion of widows and orphans, rectifier of all wrongs; in fact, as the embodiment of those virtues which we are apt to associate with Prometheus or the founder of Christianity.
Only to those who know nothing of local conditions will it seem strange to say that Italian law is one of the factors that contribute to the disintegration of family life throughout the country, and to the production of creatures like Musolino. There are few villages which do not contain some notorious assassins who have escaped punishment under sentimental pleas, and now terrorize the neighbourhood. This is one of the evils which derange patriarchalism; the decent-minded living in fear of their lives, the others with a conspicuous example before their eyes of the advantages of evil-doing. And another is that the innocent often suffer, country-bred lads being locked up for months and years in prison on the flimsiest pretexts–often on the mere word of some malevolent local policeman–among hardened habitual offenders. If they survive the treatment, which is not always the case, they return home completely demoralized and a source of infection to others.
It is hardly surprising if, under such conditions, rich and poor alike are ready to hide a picturesque fugitive from justice. A sad state of affairs, but–as an unsavoury Italian proverb correctly says–il pesce puzza dal capo.
For the fault lies not only in the fundamental perversity of all Roman Law. It lies also in the local administration of that law, which is inefficient and marked by that elaborate brutality characteristic of all “philosophic” and tender-hearted nations. One thinks of the Byzantines. . . . That justices should be well-salaried gentlemen, cognizant of their duties to society; that carbineers and other police-functionaries should be civilly responsible for outrages upon the public; that a so-called “habeas-corpus” Act might be as useful here as among certain savages of the north; that the Baghdad system of delays leads to corruption of underpaid officials and witnesses alike (not to speak of judges)–in a word, that the method pursued hereabouts is calculated to create rather than to repress crime: these are truths of too elementary a nature to find their way into the brains of the megalomaniac rhetoricians who control their country’s fate. They will never endorse that saying of Stendhal’s: “In Italy, with the exception of Milan, the death-penalty is the preface of all civilization.” (To this day, the proportion of murders is still 13 per cent higher in Palermo than in Milan.)
Speak to the wisest judges of the horrors of cellular confinement such as Musolino was enduring up to a short time ago, as opposed to capital punishment, and you will learn that they invoke the humanitarian Beccaria in justification of it. Theorists!
For less formidable criminals there exists that wondrous institution of domicilio coatto, which I have studied in the islands of Lipari and Ponza. These evil-doers seldom try to escape; life is far too comfortable, and the wine good and cheap; often, on completing their sentences, they get themselves condemned anew, in order to return. The hard-working man may well envy their lot, for they recuve free lodging from the Government, a daily allowance of money, and two new suits of clothes a year–they are not asked to do a stroke of work in return, but may lie in bed all day long, if so disposed. The law-abiding citizen, meanwhile, pays for the upkeep of this horde of malefactors, as well as for the army of officials who are deputed to attend to their wants. This institution of domicilio coatto is one of those things which would be incredible, were it not actually in existence. It is a school, a State-fostered school, for the promotion of criminality.
But what shall be expected? Where judges sob like children, and jurors swoon away with emotionalism; where floods of bombast–go to the courts, and listen!–take the place of cross-examination and duly-sworn affidavits; where perjury is a humanly venial and almost praiseworthy failing–how shall the code, defective as it is, be administered? Rhetoric, and rhetoric alone, sways the decision of the courts. Scholars are only now beginning to realize to what an extent the ancient sense of veracity was tainted with this vice–how deeply all classical history is permeated with elegant partisan non-truth. And this evil legacy from Greco-Roman days has been augmented by the more recent teachings of Jesuitry and the Catholic theory of “peccato veniale.” Rhetoric alone counts; rhetoric alone is “art.” The rest is mere facts; and your “penalista” has a constitutional horror of a bald fact, because there it is, and there is nothing to be done with it. It is too crude a thing for cultured men to handle. If a local barrister were forced to state in court a plain fact, without varnish, he would die of cerebral congestion; the judge, of boredom.
In early times, these provinces had a rough-and-ready cowboy justice which answered simple needs, and when, in Bourbon days, things became more centralized, there was still a never-failing expedient: each judge having a fixed and publicly acknowledged tariff, the village elders, in deserving cases, subscribed the requisite sum and released their prisoner. But Italy is now paying the penalty of ambition. With one foot in the ferocity of her past, and the other on a quicksand of dream-nurtured idealism, she contrives to combine the disadvantages of both. She, who was the light o’ love of all Europe for long ages, and in her poverty denied nothing to her clientele, has now laid aside a little money, repenting of her frivolous and mercenary deeds (they sometimes do), and becoming puritanically zealous of good works in her old age–all this, however, as might have been expected from her antecedent career, without much discrimination.
It is certainly remarkable that a race of men who have been such ardent opponents of many forms of tyranny in the past, should still endure a system of criminal procedure worthy of Torquemada. High and low cry out against it, but–pazienza! Where shall grievances be ventilated? In Parliament? A good joke, that! In the press? Better still! Italian newspapers nowise reflect the opinions of civilized Italy; they are mere cheese-wrappers; in the whole kingdom there are only three self-respecting dailies. The people have learnt to despair of their rulers–to regard them with cynical suspicion. Public opinion has been crushed out of the country. What goes by that name is the gossip of the town-concierge, or obscure village cabals and schemings.
I am quite aware that the law-abiding spirit is the slow growth of ages, and that a serious mischief like this cannot be repaired in a short generation. I know that even now the Italian code of criminal procedure, that tragic farce, is under revision. I know, moreover, that there are stipendiary magistrates in south Italy whose discernment and integrity would do honour to our British courts. But–take the case out of their hands into a higher tribunal, and you may put your trust in God, or in your purse. Justice hereabouts is in the same condition as it was in Egypt at the time of Lord Dufferin’s report: a mockery.
It may be said that it does not concern aliens to make such criticism. A fatuous observation! Everything concerns everybody. The foreigner in Italy, if he is wise, will familiarize himself not only with the cathedrals to be visited, but also, and primarily, with the technique of legal bribery and subterfuge–with the methods locally employed for escaping out of the meshes of the law. Otherwise he may find unpleasant surprises in store for him. Had Mr. Mercer made it his business to acquire some rudiments of this useful knowledge, he would never have undergone that outrageous official ill-treatment which has become a byword in the annals of international amenities. And if these strictures be considered too severe, let us see what Italians themselves have to say. In 1900 was published a book called “La Quistione Meridionale" (What’s Wrong with the South), that throws a flood of light upon local conditions. It contains the views of twenty-seven of the most prominent men in the country as to how south Italian problems should be faced and solved. Nearly all of them deplore the lack of justice. Says Professor Colajanni: “To heal the south, we require an honest, intelligent and sagacious government, which we have not got.” And Lombroso: “In the south it is necessary to introduce justice, which does not exist, save in favour of certain classes.”
I am tempted to linger on this subject, not without reason. These people and their attitude towards life will remain an enigma to the traveller, until he has acquainted himself with the law of the land and seen with his own eyes something of the atrocious misery which its administration involves. A murderer like Musolino, crowned with an aureole of saintliness, would be an anomaly in England. We should think it rather paradoxical to hear a respectable old farmer recommending his boys to shoot a policeman, whenever they safely can. On the spot, things begin to wear a different aspect. Musolino is no more to be blamed than a child who has been systematically misguided by his parents; and if these people, much as they love their homes and families, are all potential Musolinos, they have good reasons for it–excellent reasons.
No south Italian living at this present moment, be he of what social class you please–be he of the gentlest blood or most refined culture–is a priori on the side of the policeman. No; not a priori. The abuses of the executive are too terrific to warrant such an attitude. Has not the entire police force of Naples, up to its very head, been lately proved to be in the pay of the camorra; to say nothing of its connection with what Messrs. King and Okey euphemistically call “the unseen hand at Rome"–a hand which is held out for blackmail, and not vainly, from the highest ministerial benches? Under such conditions, the populace becomes profoundly distrustful of the powers that be, and such distrust breeds bad citizens. But so things will remain, until the bag-and-baggage policy is applied to the whole code of criminal procedure, and to a good half of its present administrators.
The best of law-systems, no doubt, is but a compromise. Science being one thing, and public order another, the most enlightened of legislators may well tremble to engraft the fruits of modern psychological research upon the tree of law, lest the scion prove too vigorous for the aged vegetable. But some compromises are better than others; and the Italian code, which reads like a fairy tale and works like a Fury, is as bad a one as human ingenuity can devise. If a prisoner escape punishment, it is due not so much to his innocence as to some access of sanity or benevolence on the part of the judge, who courageously twists the law in his favour. Fortunately, such humane exponents of the code are common enough; were it otherwise, the prisons, extensive as they are, would have to be considerably enlarged. But that ideal judge who shall be paid as befits his grave calling, who shall combine the honesty and common sense of the north with the analytical acumen of the south, has yet to be evolved. What interests the student of history is that things hereabouts have not changed by a hair since the days of Demosthenes and those preposterous old Hellenic tribunals. Not by a single hair! On the one hand, we have a deluge of subtle disquisitions on “jurisprudence," “personal responsibility” and so forth; on the other, the sinister tomfoolery known as law– that is, babble, corruption, palaeolithic ideas of what constitutes evidence, and a court-procedure that reminds one of Gilbert and Sullivan at their best.
There was a report in the papers not long ago of the trial of an old married couple, on the charge of murdering a young girl. The bench dismissed the case, remarking that there was not a particle of evidence against them; they had plainly been exemplary citizens all their long lives. They had spent five years in prison awaiting trial. Five years, and innocent! It stands to reason that such abuses disorganize the family, especially in Italy, where the “family” means much more than it does in England; the land lies barren, and savings are wasted in paying lawyers and bribing greedy court officials. What are this worthy couple to think of Avanti, Savoia! once they have issued from their dungeon?
I read, in yesterday’s Parliamentary Proceedings, of an honourable member (Aprile) rising to ask the Minister of Justice (Gallini) whether the time has not come to proceed with the trial of “Signori Camerano and their co-accused,” who have been in prison for six years, charged with voluntary homicide. Whereto His Excellency sagely replies that “la magistratura ha avuto i suoi motivi"–the magistrates have had their reasons. Six years in confinement, and perhaps innocent! Can one wonder, under such circumstances, at the anarchist schools of Prato and elsewhere? Can one wonder if even a vindictive and corrupt rag like the socialistic “Avanti” occasionally prints frantic protests of quasi-righteous indignation? And not a hundredth part of such accused persons can cause a Minister of the Crown to be interpellated on their behalf. The others suffer silently and often die, forgotten, in their cells.
And yet–how seriously we take this nation! Almost as seriously as we take ourselves. The reason is that most of us come to Italy too undiscerning, too reverent; in the pre-critical and pre-humorous stages. We arrive here, stuffed with Renaissance ideals or classical lore, and viewing the present through coloured spectacles. We arrive here, above all things, too young; for youth loves to lean on tradition and to draw inspiration from what has gone before; youth finds nothing more difficult than to follow Goethe’s advice about grasping that living life which shifts and fluctuates about us. Few writers are sufficiently detached to laugh at these people as they, together with ourselves, so often and so richly deserve. I spoke of the buffoonery of Italian law; I might have called it a burlesque. The trial of the ex-minister Nasi: here was a cause celebre conducted by the highest tribunal of the land; and if it was not a burlesque–why, we must coin a new word for what is.