Emptying the Fish Tank

Some of my friends have heard this story from me already, but repetitions are a staple of old age, so bear with me.

In the 70’s I was a teenager. The Italian economy was ravaged by rampant inflation, slow growth, corruption – the usual set of deadweights that unfortunately bogged down this country since the end of Second World War. Actually, when you read essays on Ancient Rome, you realize that Marcus Porcius Cato was complaining exactly about these same evils in 200BC so…

As usual, the poorer segment of the population was bearing the brunt of this situation and social strife was everywhere: hardly a day went by without a protest march or a strike and the mildly conservative governments that rapidly came and went were unable to cope with diverging extremes both on the left and on the right.1969 piazza Fontana

In 1969 a bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in central Milano, killing 17: it was the start of an escalation of violence that lasted about ten years, collectively known as “Years of Lead”. Terrorist groups formed in both extremes, the best known perhaps being right wing Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”) and the leftist Brigate Rosse (“Red Brigades”).

While the neo-fascists always operated under guidance or inspiration from Secret Services (both Italian and American), the Red Brigades prospered in the fish tank of a dispossessed working class, and quickly escalated their military actions from symbolic non-lethal woundings of key figures of the establishment (journalists, industrialists, politicians) to deadly attacks which culminated in 1978 in the murder of Aldo Moro, then President of the Christian Democratic Party, together with the five men of his security detail.

Despite the violence, the rhetoric of what was then the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union, and especially that of the hardline Union of Metalworkers CGIL, was to characterize the Red Brigades as “comrades who went too far”.

1979 Guido Rossa
Guido Rossa assassinated

In 1978, however, Guido Rossa, a CGIL Union Representative working at the largest Italian steel mill, Italsider, reported to the Police one of his co-workers for distributing Red Brigades leaflets at his workplace. It was an act of isolated bravery: two other Union Reps, despite having witnessed the same event, refused to testify for fear of reprisals.

These fears proved not without foundation, as a few months later Guido Rossa was assassinated by the Red Brigades, the first homicide against a member of the working class.

The Red Brigades attempted to portray Rossa as a spy, but both the Communist party and CGIL subtly altered their stance, starting to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People”.

The phenomenon had peaked and despite several other bloody episodes culminating in the bomb at the Bologna Railway Station in 1980 who killed 85, carried out by neo-fascist terrorists (as, as it much later turned out, had been Piazza Fontana), without popular support the Red Brigades quickly frayed in a myriad of bickering small units, militants started to defect and soon all terrorists were apprehended and sentenced long prison terms.

The fish tank had been emptied killing the fearsome piranhas.

dead piranha

The reason I am telling this story over and over is because I think it holds a lesson that’s very relevant and useful today, forty years later: also Islamic clergy (and I know how difficult it is to get a distributed religion like Islam to act in a united way) should empty the fish tank of popular support by starting to call Daesh for what they are:


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