The thin green line

Aug 7th 2008 | ROME
From The Economist print edition

Italy gets tough on street crime. But it’s still lenient about corruption.

GUNNERS secured Milan’s Piazza del Duomo; paratroops took up position outside St John Lateran in Rome; and Alpine mountain troops in feathered headgear helped police raid a drug-pushers’ open-air hangout in Turin.

Italy is hardly Colombia. There is not even a warning of imminent terrorist attack. So why this air of national emergency? The government of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, ordered the army on to the streets on August 4th to quell what it says is a crisis in law and order.

Three thousand soldiers will be employed on public-order duties. Most will be replacing police on guard at immigrant detention centres and near potential terrorist targets like embassies. About 1,000 will patrol alongside the police. The government says they will stay on the streets for at least six months.

A timely study by Censis, a research institute, casts some doubt on the government’s premise that crime is running out of control. In 2006 there were fewer murders in Italy than in Germany, France or Britain; one is more likely to be killed in Brussels than in Rome.

Murder rates are not the same as crime rates, however. Government figures show that the total number of offences has been rising by 6-7% annually. What seems to have risen faster is public anxiety. Another survey, for an insurance company foundation, Unipolis, published on July 27th, found that Italians saw crime as the main cause of insecurity, and almost half connected lawbreaking with foreigners.

The government attributes its election victory in April to Mr Berlusconi’s pledge to get tough on crime. Putting troops on the streets sends a message to his voters that it intends to deliver on that pledge. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most Italians find the troops’ presence reassuring.

Whether they will help stem crime is another matter. General Mario Buscemi, who led the last deployment of the army in Italian towns, to tackle the Mafia in the 1990s, recalled that he had 20,000 men just for Sicily. The current operation, he said, was “substantially symbolic”. The soldiers do not have powers of arrest, nor are they properly trained or equipped for policing operations.

One widely voiced fear is that the sight of troops could scare off tourists. The mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, a member of Mr Berlusconi’s Freedom People movement, has fought a running battle to keep uniformed soldiers out of the city centre. Italy may not be Colombia, but it might start to look like it.

Amid the melodrama—including the “emergency” over the arrival of migrants on boats from north Africa and the eviction of gypsies—there is a nagging question. Why is a government so tough on crime so indulgent about corruption?

Among Mr Berlusconi’s first acts in government were closing the office of the high commissioner against corruption and passing a law that means he himself will not have to answer to bribery charges.

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