There are, in every country, in every language, words that have a deeper, more profound meaning than the mere concept they define. Take, for instance, Balaclava: in British English, might be a garment used by bank robbers or motorbikers, but it’s also the epitome of the ultimate sacrifice. In Italian the Bologna station, or Stazione di Bologna, is not only a stop on the busy high-speed line linking Milan with Rome; it also means bloodbath. A senseless, unjustifiable bloodbath as all terrorist acts are.
It is, I know, rather harsh for me to dedicate my first post about Bologna to a violent event, an event of which the entire city was a victim. Yet, I feel that droning on about Bologna’s merrier sides – the food, the University, politics – without paying homage to an event entrenched deeply in Italy’s psyche would be not only tasteless, but also disrespectful.
Upon exiting Bologna’s station few travelers, Italians or foreigners alike, are likely to notice three things. Firstly, that station’s piazza could do with a bit more order. Then, a rather old-fashioned clock, hanging from one side of the main building; and, finally, the fact that the clock is stuck on the wrong time.
At precisely 10.25 AM on August 2nd 1980 a bomb detonated in the second class waiting room at Bologna’s central station. This wasn’t something cooked up by some Islamist lunatic in his sitting room by following Al Qaeda’s manual for the DIY bomber. It was a bag filled with 18 kg of nitroglycerin and 5 kg of TNT and Compound B, a substance that could be found in military ordnances, airplane bombs and artillery granades above all. The blast ripped the ceiling off the second and first class waiting rooms, sent 30 meters of heavy, reinforced concrete platform roof flying through the air and hit a train, the Ancona – Chiasso international express train. 85 people died, hundreds were wounded. The images – the gawping wound in the station, the bus transformed in a triage room for the injured and moribund, wedged themselves in the nation’s psyche.
The Stazione di Bologna became the peak point of a 20-years long period that books and articles called “The Italian civil war” and that became known as “The years of Lead”, Anni di Piombo. A period that started in 1969 and wouldn’t end until 1988, punctuated by more than 7,000 terror attacks – and almost as many riots – that left more than 400 people dead, including former prime ministers, judges and innocent bystanders. August 2nd 1980 became Italy’s 9/11 or 7/7, only 20 years before such labels became popular.
Unlike 9/11 or 7/7, whose perpetrators have always been clearly identified (unless you’re one of those who believe that Jews are behind them, when they’re not busy spraying chemtrails in the sky or piloting flying saucers), the identity of those behind August 2nd 1980 are still unclear. The material executers are clear enough, a band of young neo-Fascists, some as young as 17, but how they got hold of military-grade explosives, who gave it to them and why are still unclear. Many hypothesis have been made, involving anyone from Carlos the Jackal to a Masonic lodge called P2, from the Palestinian terrorists to deranged elements of the secret services.
It sounds strange, stuff of a John Le Carré novel, or of a 007 film, to the point that you’d expect the chief baddy to be sitting, stroking a cat, in a castle. But the fact is that the Years of Lead were anything but simple and anything but straightforward. Statistics say that 4087 people had been sentenced on terror charges in the 20 years alone, and a staggering 24 major and 78 minor extreme leftwing terrorist groups were formed. And that’s just the left; far right had its own share of violent cells busy planting bombs in stations or trains, such as the Italicus train which exploded on August 4th 1974, killing 12 people, not far off from Bologna. Had the train not been 30 minutes late – a byword for the Italian railways of the time – Bologna’s Centrale would’ve made an unwanted acquaintance with bombing some 6 years earlier, for the bomb’s timer had been set up to explode at the exact time when, according to an occasionally respected timetable, the Italicus was due to pull up at that station.
What’s the point, today, of remembering these facts? Why do we still print those haunting images of bodies charred by molotovs thrown into “bourgeois” night clubs, or of protesters mimicking pistols with their hands, the infamous comrade P38? Why do people keep on laying flowers outside the Bologna station, or in Brescia’s Piazza della Loggia, or Milan’s Piazza Fontana?
Remembering, unless you’re on the phone that is.
Well, to start with most of the violence of those years hasn’t been explained in toto inside Italy’s court rooms. Who wanted former Prime Minister Aldo Moro dead? Who bombed, or shot down, Itavia’s DC9 over Ustica? Who armed the youngsters who set off Bologna’s bomb?
Secondly, it might sound all old fashioned, a relic of the time when ideologies still mattered, Russia was still waving a red flag and Apple hadn’t exited Steve Job’s garage yet, but it’d be wrong to assume that.
Marco Biagi was a consultant, working on a much-needed reform of Italy’s sclerotic labour market. He lived in Bologna, where he also taught at the local University. His work had attracted some unsavoury attention: first under the form of letters, then as a star, a particular 5-point stars, carved on a door next to his house. The star was the logo of the Red Brigates, and by them the letters were signed. Marco Biagi asked for protection, for an armed escort. The Italian Home Office, the same office who deemed enough to provide Prime Minister Berlusconi with a forty-men-strong security detachment, said no.
On March 19th 2002, long after the death of ideology, the introduction of the Russian tricolor and of the Apple iPod, Marco Biagi was gunned down as he peddled home. Old stuff? Think again.