Sunday night's attack on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the streets of Milan has gripped the nation and is causing Italians to wonder if the increasingly tense climate could lead to political violence not seen since the infamous "Years of Lead" in the 1970s and early 80s.
The sight of their stunned and bloodied leader being rushed the hospital with a broken nose and teeth after an attacker hurled a miniature metal replica of a cathedral into his face has brought back difficult memories of the years when right-wing and left-wing extremists battled each other and the state.
Some news reports suggest that attacker Massimo Tartaglia, who reportedly has a history of psychiatric problems, may have acted out of mental instability. But Berlusconi's supporters and allies were quick to blame the aggression on the left-leaning opposition, which has been waging a strong campaign against the prime minister's controversial judicial reform that they say is an attempt for him to skirt his corruption trials.
“I almost saw this coming,” was the prime minister's own first comment.
“The aggressor was insane, but the moral instigators are well known,” wrote ll Giornale conservative daily, owned by the Berlusconi family. In a front-page editorial published on Monday, Il Giornale blamed the attack on outspoken anti-corruption politician Antonio Di Pietro, talk show TV stars Marco Travaglio and Michele Santoro, and the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica.
Concerns about violence
“There are good reasons to be worried: there's plenty of unresolved tensions, for sure, and I can really sense a lust for violence,” says historian David Bidussa, from the progressive Feltrinelli Institute. “Santoro and Travaglio have indeed turned Berlusconi into an icon to be demolished rather than a simple political adversary... but now Il Giornale is doing the same with them. You see where this witch hunt is going?”
Within few hours from the attack on Berlusconi, the head of Italy's parliament, Gianfranco Fini, hinted he feared new violence may be on the way. Mr. Fini, who is also a key figure in Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, said he was worried about the country “going back to the age of violence,” referring to the "Years of Lead."
Mr. Bidussa says the parallel might turn out to be appropriate. “Actually, I fear things may be even worse now," he says. "Besides the violence, the 70s at least witnessed a lot of positive political development, for instance on women's rights. Nowadays I don't see any constructive trend, just plenty of aggressive rhetoric.”
Left-leaning lightning rod
One of Berlusconi's most outspoken opponents, former judge turned anticorruption politician Antonio Di Pietro, has recently insinuated that the prime minister had brought violence upon himself: "With his behavior and his 'I don't give a toss' attitude, he has instigated the violence," said Mr. Di Pietro after the attack.
Conservative allies of Berlusconi are seizing on comments like these to blame Di Pietro as being a primary instigator of the attack.
“This attack clearly points out the evil that comes from a distorted use of political criticism,” said Milan's mayor and Berlusconi ally Letizia Moratti, who was next to the prime minister when he was attacked. Ms. Moratti also accused the left-leaning opposition of carrying out an “absurd demonization” of the prime minister, described as “one of the most important politicians in the history of our democracy.”
On Monday, all major newspapers published first page editorials advocating the end of inflamatory rhetoric.
The left-leaning daily La Repubblica warned that Sunday's attack “may signal a tragic era, similar to the one we have already witnessed in the darkest days of our lives” -- also a reference to the Years of Lead.
“Political hatred is intoxicating the public debate,” wrote Il Corriere della Sera, Italy's main, and more moderate, newspaper. “While hostility is mounting, [we are getting] close to a war between the two sides of the country.
Berlusconi may need weeks to recover
Mr. Tartaglia is currently being interrogated. Police reportedly found pepper spray in his pocket and believe his action was premeditated.
Berlusconi is currently hospitalized in the San Raffaele medical facility just outside Milan. He may be released from the hospital on Tuesday, but doctors say he will need two weeks to recover.
“I'm fine, I'm fine, they're not going to stop me,” the prime minister reportedly told his staff while being rushed to the emergency room “But I am saddened by this campaign of hatred [waged] against myself. That's the result of [the actions] of those who have spread discord.”