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Italian Earthquake Experts' Confounding Conviction


People around the world asked questions after a court in Italy issued prison sentences for scientists convicted of failure to warn the public of an earthquake. In 2009, a temblor devastated the city of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people shortly after a group of geologists had met to talk about a series of smaller shocks, but scientists around the world say there is no way to predict an earthquake with any kind of accuracy. Aside from that trial, Italy plays a crucial role in the euro crisis.

It's a destination for immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and some there would like smaller wealthier parts of the country to break away. For many years, Sylvia Poggioli has reported on these and many other issues from her post as senior European correspondent for NPR based in Rome. She's visiting here in Washington, and we're delighted to welcome her here in Studio 3A. Sylvia, nice to have you with us today.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: It's great to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And if you have questions for Sylvia Poggioli, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And, Sylvia, this verdict in L'Aquila seems, well, scientists say it's outrageous.

POGGIOLI: It is outrageous. Certainly, it is. There's perhaps been a little bit of a misunderstanding. It isn't exactly that they were convicted for not predicting the earthquake, but they were convicted for downplaying the danger. And essentially, I think, what has happened here is that these scientists have become sort of scapegoats for the political - the failures of the politicians. There have been tremors for many months. People were scared. Many people slept - spent the night out sleeping in their cars.

And there was a lot of pressure from the political world. There was a guy who's not a scientist who had predicted an earthquake not in L'Aquila but a little over 40 miles away where it didn't happen. And so there was a lot of emotion, and the politicians felt that, I think, they had to find somebody to try to reassure the population. The scientists perhaps were not very articulate in their way, but they certainly said you can't predict an earthquake. And now, they're being blame.

And the fact is that there's been - much more has happened since the earthquake. There's been very little reconstruction. There's huge resentment. I think another mistake was to hold the trial in L'Aquila with a local judge, local prosecutors. All these things have sort of built up an emotional momentum that, I think, it was - it's a bad verdict. It's a bad thing. And even the environment minister said it's echoes of Galileo.

CONAN: Yeah.

POGGIOLI: That's what - that's the headline everybody has used, but certainly, that's part of the story.

CONAN: Well, are they going to be able to appeal and perhaps go to some court somewhere other than L'Aquila?

POGGIOLI: Oh, yes. This is one of the times probably it's very fortunate that the Italian judicial system is very slow.


POGGIOLI: There's - they're not going to jail until there would be a third ruling, and that could take years and years and years. I think it's important though, you know, to say that also, you know, there is a streak of anti-science sentiment in the Italian psyche. And there's a lot of prejudice. There are a lot of superstitions. And I think it derives from, you know, years of Catholic doctrine. That's why we get back to Galileo here. You know, he was sentenced by a church court for saying that the sun is - the Earth is not the center of the universe but that the Earth rotates around the sun. And that was a taboo at the time.

CONAN: And the church gone around to saying they were wrong only 400 years later.

POGGIOLI: Exactly, exactly. And, you know, it's a famous line that he sort of bowed to the powers that be, but afterwards, he said this famous line - eppur si muove - and yet it really moves.


POGGIOLI: But that - so that kind of anti-science sentiment is quite strong in Italy.

CONAN: Let me ask you, though, we think of Italy as a modern...

POGGIOLI: But that's - so that kind of anti-science sentiment is quite strong in Italy.

CONAN: Let me ask you, though. We think of Italy as a modern country. There are parts of Italy that are still very poor. There are parts of Italy - we think of Milan or Rome as sophisticated cities. There are parts of the countryside that are not so far advanced.

POGGIOLI: Well, now, particularly with the economic crisis that's certainly coming, you know, the euro crisis - we've talked a lot mostly about Greece and about Spain and not so much about Italy, although certainly, it's not as bad as Greece and Spain, but it certainly is bad. And the new government that came in after the notorious Silvio Berlusconi has passed a lot of very tough laws, raised taxes, austerity measures. And people are hurting. They're hurting all over the place.

And this - now this explosion of scandals, of corruption scandals in the last few months. And it's coming at a time when Italians are tightening their belts, and they see politicians eating off of, you know, their - taxpayers' money, and there's a huge bubbling, tremendously strong resentment towards the political establishment.

CONAN: Corruption in the highest circles. It seemed the former prime minister, Mr. Berlusconi, could not go a week without drawing a new trial.

POGGIOLI: That's right. And he still is facing several trials, including one for having sex with an underaged young woman. I think even - you know, we - when we talk about Italy, corruption is sort of second nature. But I think the scope of this, the corruption now, is surprising even by Italian standards. And the justice minister, just a few weeks ago, said that there was a huge - the famous Bribesville scandals at the end of the '90s, says these are even worse.

And one of the prosecutors of those - of that - of those - that scandal 20 years ago, Gherardo Colombo, recently said it's worse now. The institutions are weaker, and a lot of it is attributed to 20 years of Berlusconi having passed laws that have really made corruption easier and harder to detect.

And what's very disturbing is, in the population, is that there seems to be almost indifference, a kind of acquiescence. There's really not much indignation. With the indignation, it reflects itself, basically saying, a pox on all of you and a kind of rejection of the whole political sphere completely.

CONAN: Is Berlusconi done?

POGGIOLI: In fact, today's headlines in the Italian media were that, yesterday, he announced he's not running again for prime minister. Does it mean he's not running for parliament? Not clear. But, you know, he's been - he's known to change his mind.

CONAN: Really?

POGGIOLI: But the recent polls show that he's very - he's never had it so bad. He has 11 percent popularity, and that's about as low as you can get.

CONAN: And as you look at this apathy towards politics, this could not come at a worse time because, as you say, clearly, Italy is not as badly off as Spain or Greece or Portugal, or even Ireland. But it is so much bigger, that should Italy go, it's going to take Europe with it.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. It's very bad. The whole situation, I think, today is terrifying. The Monti government has restored a certain amount of international prestige. Certainly, he's a very highly respected man. But he can only govern thanks to the support of the Berlusconi party and of the center-left Democratic Party. And he can only go so far. If they don't give him the support to pass certain laws - he recently - his government just passed an anti-corruption law, but it's considered too weak.

And as I was mentioning all these corruption scandals is the phenomenon of organized crime has become devastating. It is now - has - the Calabrian Mafia has infiltrated the north, the industrial north. It represents - now the turnover is something like 100. It's estimated at $190 billion a year. The mafias have more liquidity than the banks, and something like $190 billion or something like 7 percent of Italy's GDP. It's a massive amount of money, and the whole system is very much infiltrated and corrupted by this.

CONAN: You recognize the voice, of course, Sylvia Poggioli: NPR's senior European correspondent based in Rome, here with us in Studio 3A today as she visits Washington, D.C. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Jack's on the line, calling from Greenfield, in Massachusetts.

JACK: Thank you for having me on. Honored to speak with you and Sylvia Poggioli. My question is to what extent people's reactions in Italy and tensions within the country between, say, these poor regions and some of the richer regions are parallel, are like the tensions that came up before World War II, which was also a time of economic downturn.

POGGIOLI: Well, no, I don't think that's - I think the parallels of World War II, you could probably use much more now in a country like Greece, but not yet in Italy. I mean, I think, today, there is - you know, Italy had been - most Italians have been pretty well off for the last, I'd say, 20, 30 years.

And the sense is that there's - the north has been wanting to break away from the south for some time, but the Northern League, the party that has been proposing that, has become also embroiled in corruption, has lost a lot of popularity, doesn't quite have the clout now to try to press a secessionist movement.

There's a great, just, sense of, you know, closing in, indifference, disgust with the political world - not yet enough to get people out on the streets to demonstrate the way - what - the way it's happening in Greece and in Spain right now.

CONAN: Prime Minister Monti, you mentioned, he is greatly respected, but no political base of his own.

POGGIOLI: That's exactly right. In fact, he has said he is not going to run in the next - elections are coming up in the spring. And everybody is on tenterhooks about these elections, because the international, certainly the Europeans want Monti to stay. There's a part of the institutions in Italy would like Monti to stay, but he says he's not running. He's not going to form a party.

He said, if the parties that win want - call me in to be a prime minister again, I'll be willing to think about that. But in the meantime, who's going to win? It's very unclear. And the situation - as I said, there's apathy on the one hand, and disgust with the political establishment could give, you know, could help a lot, could encourage many populist movements and what they call in Italy the anti-political, the sort of anarchic kind of policies that we've seen a little bit also happening in Greece within the last few years.

CONAN: Let me go to the other side of the political spectrum. In Greece, we've seen the rise of Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist group there. Has there been a rise of extreme right-wing groups in Italy?

POGGIOLI: Not to that same extent. Not to that same extent. But I'd say the Northern League covered that territory for a very long time of being very anti-immigrant. And that's been going on - and they were empowered with Berlusconi for almost 20 years. And so the anti-immigrant element is there. Golden Dawn is a terrifying development that has happened. And one of the aspects also that's very terrifying about Golden Dawn is that many of the Greek policemen vote for Golden Dawn. There's a link also between the police and Golden Dawn.

CONAN: Sylvia Poggioli with us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's see if we can go to Tom, Tom with us from Los Gatos in California.

TOM: Yeah. Good morning, everyone. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TOM: Yeah, we had a huge problem with the corporate-controlled of media during the Gulf spill a few years ago. Scientists were kept out by the Coast Guard and hired thugs, and the news media was clamped out. And, of course, a similar thing happened with the invasion of Iraq. The government completely took over control of the media.

I was wondering if the media in Italy has any real fear to report the truth and, you know, collaborating with scientists to express their opinions not just about impending earthquakes, but, you know, volcanic eruptions and earthquake safety in general, you know, the unsafe buildings that needed to be retro-fitted or just torn down and rebuilt, you know, especially in poor areas. Of course, it might be a good idea to have an elder(ph) plan for this kind of environmental disaster prediction, as well.

POGGIOLI: Well, with reference specifically to the environmental issues or scientific issues in general, I can't say. But certainly, the Italian example of media control of the prime minister, I think, is probably unique, certainly unique in a Western country. You had - the prime minister was a media tycoon who owned three major - the three major private networks and, as prime minister, then had total control of the state-run media. And Italy, as in other countries, certainly TV is one of the major - I think 80 percent of Italians get their news from media. And we had really - from TV, excuse me. And we had really about two decades of total Berlusconi control of the media. There are certainly some very good independent papers, but, of course, they reach may fewer people than TV does.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is John, John on the line with us from Milwaukee.

JOHN: Yes. I was going to ask the lady there, your guest, if Alessandra Mussolini, is she more for the breakaway of the north from Sicily, et cetera, or is she in the mode of her grandfather? And it seems like all these problems that she - that this - your guest mentioned were same the disorder in Italy that Mussolini was brought into change, that only Mussolini could've straightened out Italy in 1921.

CONAN: Well, the trains run on time now.


CONAN: Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: With reference to Alessandra Mussolini, the Mussolini - the dictator's granddaughter, no, she's definitely not on the side of the secessionists. She is - the party she belongs to is really the party that has the legacy of the old Fascist Party. It presents itself as a sort of conservative party, but its roots are in the Fascist Party. No, she's not. She's basically - she's been keeping a little bit of a low profile recently. But she's more very loud and likes to be very visible, but does not have a huge following.

CONAN: We hear all of these reports of political tensions, of corruption, of banking problems, of economic problems. How is life in Italy?

POGGIOLI: Well, the visitor certainly arrives, thinks, hey, this is great. This is cool. You see people in cafes. You see this - the life seems normal. But, first of all, people spend a lot of time in cafes because it means probably they don't have a job, and they might order one coffee and spend hours there. And it's about the only place you can socialize without spending too much money.

But no, seriously, again, not as, in any way, as bad as it is in Greece or in Spain. But it's tough, especially it's terribly, terribly tough on young people. There's a huge unemployment, again, like in Greece and in Spain, very - it's very hard for young people to find anything. They have only these temp contracts that are - give them no benefits, whatsoever. You see a lot of big brain drain. Kids are leaving.

I was in Berlin recently for two weeks, and just about everywhere I went, I found young Italians, Spaniards and Greeks working in the cafes and restaurants. They're all as - those who can, who speak some languages, are getting out. For them, it's very bad. For the people who stay, for the elderly, those who have a pension, they can manage.

But for many people who now, again, with the new - people thought that they were going to retire at 60. Now, all of the sudden, it's 66. All of a sudden, their lives have been really, you know, changed tremendously in a very short time. Big crackdown on tax evasion - that was a favorite sport in Italy. People now are happy to be - are - it's beginning to hurt very much.

CONAN: Finally, Sarah in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, emails: Please ask Sylvia when she's going to write her book about her amazing coverage in Kosovo. Please, soon.


POGGIOLI: Thank you. I haven't - it's in the back of my mind, that and other stories I've covered. But I'm not ready yet.

CONAN: Sylvia Poggioli, visiting from her base in Rome, where she is NPR's senior European correspondent. As always, thank you so much for your time.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Neal. It's great to be here.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at the history of real, live zombies and why vampires hate garlic. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.