By Peter Popham in Rome
If an immigrant commits a crime against an Italian, ten immigrants should be punished for it, following the method used in Nazi concentration camps: this is the recipe for racial harmony advanced by Giorgio Bettio, a town councillor in Treviso, near Venice.
Mr Bettio belongs to the Northern League, the xenophobic north Italian party which advocates secession from the south, and his suggestion is in the League’s tradition of calculated racist outrage. When he made it in Treviso’s council chamber on Monday it was greeted by a stunned silence from the Opposition.
But yesterday the vileness of the sentiment sank in, and the remark and what lay behind it were fiercely condemned. “It is absolutely impossible that a civilised people can tolerate such imbecility,” raged Umberto Lorenzoni, president of an organisation representing ex-Partisans. “I want to meet Bettio and explain to him what Nazism was about. Instead of dozing, the law must act.”
The governor of the Veneto region, Giancarlo Galan, commented, “Bettio’s remark was delirious and repugnant.”
Treviso’s Jewish community yesterday proposed joint legal action against Mr Bettio with the city’s Roma community, the main target of recent racist anger.
Yet the theme raised so viciously by Mr Bettio – of treating foreigners in Italy with special harshness – was yesterday on the way to being enshrined in the statute book. One month ago a “decree law” or diktat authorising the expulsion without trial of EU citizens who are a threat to public security was rushed into law after the murder of an Italian woman, allegedly by a Roma man. Yesterday in the Senate they debated transforming the diktat into a regular law, and an attempt by left-wing members of the ruling coalition to send the law back to the committee stage was defeated by the Opposition. Soon it will be the law of the land, though prime minster Romano Prodi, who supports the new law, cautions that it should not result in mass expulsions.
Mr Bettio’s outburst is the most extreme of a whole array of wild reactions in the Veneto region to a perceived “security crisis” involving “criminal” immigrants – a crisis for which there is scant statistical evidence. As reported in The Independent, the first town to raise the flag of xenophobia was Cittadella where the mayor, Massimo Bitonci, passed an ordinance banning the poor, the unemployed and the homeless from obtaining residence in the town.
Mr Bitonci was quickly threatened with legal action by the state for seeking to usurp the functions of central government, but dozens of other mayors and thousands of citizens demonstrated in his favour, and outlandishly racist proposals have been sprouting like mushrooms right across the region.
One mayor wants to ban illegal immigrants from getting married, another to ban them from being eligible for school scholarships, another to limit Italian citizenship to foreigners with a perfect knowledge of Italian and of the Constitution.
As the Veneto philosopher Umberto Curi commented, “A grotesque competition is in progress for who can make the grossest proposal.” The proximity of regional elections, due in the spring, is one explanation.
Mr Bettio excused his remark yesterday as the product of rage, and of a desire to protect his “mamma”, who felt threatened by immigrants. But he added, “many people stop me in the street to thank me for saying it”.