On March 16, 1978, a group of terrorists ambushed the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro on the via Fani in Rome. Within three minutes they killed all five members of his escort and bundled Moro into one of three getaway cars. People living nearby tried to give the alarm, but found that their telephone wires had been cut. Half an hour later the police issued a general alert, but by that time the kidnappers and their victim had disappeared. Within an hour the Red Brigades announced that Moro was in their hands; on March 18, they said he would be tried in a “people’s court of justice.” Nine weeks later, after the tangled events Leonardo Sciascia recounts in The Moro Affair had taken place, the Red Brigades announced that Moro’s body would be found in the luggage compartment of a Renault parked on the via Caetani in the crowded center of Rome. They chose this street for symbolic reasons: it is halfway between the headquarters of the Christian Democratic and the Communist parties.

Who were the Red Brigades? They first appeared on the scene in Milan in 1970. They began their “armed propaganda” on September 17, when they burned the car of a factory executive. Following the success of the great wave of strikes in the “hot autumn’ of 1969, working-class militancy remained high, and was accompanied by frequent acts of violence and sabotage. These were mainly attributable to young workers newly arrived from the south. The Red Brigades, however, unlike Lotta Continua and other groups of the extraparliamentary left, did not find recruits in this raw and newly urbanized proletariat. They came from three main sources: young shop stewards and factory delegates, radicalized by their experiences during the autumn of 1969; veterans of the student movement from the new faculty of sociology at Trento; and dissident members of the Communist Youth Federation from the Party stronghold of Reggio Emilia. These young militants saw themselves, in Leninist fashion, as the advance guard of the revolutionary working class, and they took the large factories of Milan and Turin as their initial field of action. They chose to go underground in order to wage more effective war on their class enemies.

From the beginning, however, the Red Brigades’ choice of clandestine action tended to isolate them from the working class, and they became more and more estranged from reality. But in the first period of their existence, neither their secrecy nor their isolation was complete. The Red Brigades were to acquire a reputation for murderous efficiency, but at this time they were neither efficient nor deliberately murderous. They committed their first murders in 1974, and these were more the result of impulse and circumstance than of planning. The character of the organization changed after the second and final arrest of their most important leader, Renato Curcio. It was only then, under the leadership of his successor, Mario Moretti, that they became a formidable machine of terror. They carried out their first planned assassination in June 1976, when they murdered the state attorney, Francesco Coco. This was by way of reprisal for his refusal the previous year to approve the deal by which eight prisoners on trial were to be liberated in exchange for Mario Sossi, a magistrate who was held as a hostage by the Red Brigades. The price of terroristic “efficiency” and tight security was to increase their isolation from what was going on in society, even among those who were closest to their aims.

In a recent book, a prominent Italian political scientist, Giorgio Galli,1 has suggested that the state always had the means to suppress the Red Brigades. At several moments in their history, Galli writes, they were more or less deliberately allowed to revive, because parts of the government apparatus found the threat of terrorism useful for their own purposes. There are some serious arguments for this view. The secret services had cooperated with neofascist terrorists in what became known as “the strategy of tension,” which was designed to create a demand for order through bomb incidents and other acts of violence. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they had tried to infiltrate left-wing groups in order to pin the blame for bombings on them. Having failed to create an artificial “red terror,” they might well have seen its spontaneous appearance as something they could put to political use. When the notorious head of the secret services, General Vito Miceli, was forced to resign in 1974, he made an ominous prediction that sounds rather like a threat: “From now on you will not hear of black [i.e., right-wing] terrorism, but only of the others.”2

It is true that at the end of 1976 the Red Brigades had been reduced to a handful of regular militants, probably not more than ten or twenty. However, the failure of the state to complete the destruction of the Red Brigades in 1977 does not seem plausibly to be a matter of design or deliberate omission. Nineteen seventy-seven saw the greatest outburst of youth protest since 1968. This time it was accompanied by a sudden rise in violence and the appearance of a number of new terrorist groups claiming that they had no central direction and calling themselves Autonomi. Faced with this diffused threat, and divided by internal feuds, the political system and the agencies of the state seemed to present a spectacle of day-by-day disintegration.


Although the Red Brigades profited greatly from the disruption caused by the “movement” of 1977, and drew new recruits from its periphery, they distrusted its faith in “spontaneity.” The Autonomi of the movement and the Red Brigades spoke different languages and disagreed over strategy. It is, of course, possible to think that these disagreements were a mere cover designed to hide the existence of a single, well-orchestrated conspiracy; but this argument has come to seem less and less convincing.3 The Red Brigades of Moretti were no longer interested in specific social objectives; their aim was “to break the military-bureaucratic machine of the state.” In this context, the killing of Moro’s body-guards stands out as a deliberate act designed to cause the greatest possible terror and dismay.

Moro was kidnapped while he was on his way to the Chamber of Deputies to give his support to a new government that had just been formed by Giulio Andreotti. This was the first Christian Democratic government to have the support of the Communist party, and it was, as Leonardo Sciascia puts it, Moro’s own “cautious and patient creation.” Against the opposition of many other Christian Democrats Moro had for years tried to bring about a cooperative relation with the Communist party. The drama of the Red Brigades’ attack was heightened by its timing, although the actual choice of the day seems to have been accidental.4 The Red Brigades’ “blow at the heart of the state” was in a sense too effective. It concentrated the minds of Italy’s litigious politicians, and forced them for the moment to think exclusively about the national emergency caused by the kidnapping. The kidnapping did not disintegrate the system but strengthened it.

The Andreotti government, about which serious reservations existed among both Communists and Christian Democrats, was approved without discussion. Above all, the kidnapping and the subsequent “people’s trial” of Moro—accounts of which were circulated to the press—had exactly the opposite effect on the Christian Democrats to what the Red Brigades had hoped for. They gave the Christian Democrats a new legitimacy; the image of Moro as tragic victim over-shadowed the sordid stories of corruption that had previously made the headlines. In particular the Lockheed scandal, in which Italian officials were shown to have accepted bribes, had implicated the highest levels of the party. Moro himself had saved his colleague Senator Gui from prosecution; his defense, as Sciascia put it, rested on a kind of syllogism: “The Nation’s freedom and integrity are sacred; Christian Democracy represents the Nation’s freedom and integrity: Christian Democracy is sacred” (and so its individual members must be innocent).

Shock produced not only unity but unanimity. “The line of firmness”—no negotiations with the Red Brigades—became a dogma that it was almost treasonable to question. The Communist party embraced the course of the defense of the state with all the fervor of a new convert. Moro himself received a kind of premature canonization as a political martyr. He wrote from captivity a series of messages and letters, of which several were published in the press and others were kept secret; but for the most part their contents were ignored or dismissed. The Corriere della sera talked about Moro’s truly Christian “act of acceptance and resignation” at a time when he was struggling to save his life, asking that negotiations with his captors be pursued. A graphologist was brought in to demonstrate that Moro’s letters must have been written under torture.5 The press even fabricated a story that the widow of one of Moro’s guards had threatened to burn herself alive if any concession were made to the Red Brigades. In fact, the widows of the guards were entirely sympathetic to Eleonora Moro’s efforts to have her husband freed.

Intellectuals were under pressure to speak out against negotiations. As one of Italy’s most powerful and respected novelists, famous for the bravery and integrity of his writings on the Mafia, the police, and politicians, Sciascia was expected to say something. At first he was silent, and he was criticized for this. When he did give an interview his refusal “to identify with the state as it is” was attacked as an evasion of responsibility. It is this history of initial reserve, unwilling involvement, and isolation from the prevailing mood of orthodoxy that paradoxically explains Sciascia’s decision to write about the Moro affair. His book has been widely interpreted as expressing support for “the party of negotiation,” but by Sciascia’s own account this is not really true.6 Such a view does not do justice to Sciascia’s essential pessimism; he never really believed that Moro could be saved. Instead, he wrote the book out of indignation at the conspiracy to make Moro appear other than he was, “to make him become someone else, a man who did not know what he was saying, a man who was only afraid.” The Moro Affair, published in Palermo in 1978, was a kind of posthumous tribute to a politician whose compromising, deal-making politics Sciascia had always abhorred. Whereas for most commentators the “true” Moro ceased to exist after he had been kidnapped, Sciascia discovered in the man fighting for his life a “coherence and lucidity” that he had not previously suspected.


Sciascia does not idealize Moro; he still sees him as belonging to the conventional political culture of false piety and real intrigue that he had satirized in his novella, Todo Modo,7 the story of a series of murders that take place among a group of politicians and officials who have gathered for a religious retreat. It was clearly intended as an allegory of the self-destruction of the Christian Democrat ruling group. With the death of Moro, the story acquired a new and macabre significance. But Moro had become the sacrificial victim for an entire governing class precisely because he was the “least implicated of all.” He was not a “Great Statesman,” as the language of the official tributes termed him. He completely lacked a sense of the state. But he

had been, and continued to be even in the “People’s Prison,” a great politician, careful, shrewd, calculating, seemingly pliant but in fact unyielding; patient, with a patience bordering on stubbornness; and he had the profoundest, most assured understanding of the natural vices and virtues of the Italian people any politican has ever had.

Sciascia’s fascination with Moro, his mixture of admiration and repulsion, can be more clearly understood in the light of his quotations, at the beginning of his book, from an article by Pasolini about the “extinction of the glowworms.”8 This extraordinary image stood for the annihilation of old values by the industrialized consumer society. Pasolini pointed out that this process, always traumatic, would be even more so in Italy because of the incapacity of the Christian Democrat class to realize the nature of the change. In a vacuum of power and values, a kind of barbarism was emerging in Italian society such as not even fascism had succeeded in bringing about. While these changes were taking place, the Christian Democrats, faced with the obsolescence of their traditional Catholic popular culture, had adopted a new language. This was “a language of nonexpression,” comprehensible only to initiates, a kind of secular equivalent to ecclesiastical Latin. No one, Sciascia writes, was more adept in manipulating this medium of suggestion and disguise than Aldo Moro.

Sciascia sees an ironic contrast here: in his letters, which must have been approved by the Red Brigades, Moro had to use a means of “noncommunication” in order to communicate, with increasing urgency, with his political friends in the effort to save his own life. But isn’t there a risk in this instance that Sciascia may make things too complicated? Moro’s letters from the “people’s prison” seem much more explicit than his normal prose. The least convincing element in Sciascia’s account is the search for hidden meanings in Moro’s letters. Even if such meanings are present, it seems doubtful that Sciascia can find the key to them. His analysis of Moro’s first letter to the minister of the interior, Cossiga, is an example of over-interpretation, which in the search for hidden clues overlooks, I think, some obvious meanings. There seems, for example, no reason not to take literally Moro’s suggestion that the Vatican intervene to save him. Later on, Paul VI did in fact appeal to the Red Brigades to free Moro “unconditionally.” Both Moro and his jailers interpreted this as an endorsement of the Christian Democrats’ refusal to negotiate. Moro described the Vatican’s attitude as “something atrocious, unworthy of the Holy See.” From this it seems evident that a diplomatic initiative by the Vatican was one of the actions that Moro considered most suitable for obtaining his release. Sciascia, for his part, suggests that the reference to the Vatican was meant to give a clue to his whereabouts.

The partners of the Christian Democrats, first and foremost the Communists, behaved like the friends of an alcoholic who has agreed to take the pledge. Faced with Moro’s appeals for help, they believed that it was their duty to supply a combination of moral support and stern admonition. In this way, they hoped to convince the Italian public that they were upholding an austere conception of the state. But instead they allowed Christian Democracy to claim for the existing state merits that it did not possess. The dignified principles established in the Moro case cannot be said to have been maintained by the Christian Democrats and the Communists in dealing with the kidnappings that took place after Moro was killed. The argument that any weakening would have demoralized the police and magistrates in their future dealings with terrorists could be, and was, reversed. When a magistrate was kidnapped a few months later, the state, if it was not to appear careless of its civil servants, had no alternative but to negotiate. The final irony is provided by the case of Ciro Cirillo. When this minor and none too reputable local politician was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, his release was arranged with the help of the camorra, the Mafia-like criminal organization that is powerful in southern Italy. The large ransom was compensated for by the extremely profitable cooperation between politicians and camorristi in obtaining contracts for reconstruction after the earthquake that devastated Campania in 1981.

How does one explain the remarkable inefficiency displayed by the security services at the time of the Moro affair? The official explanation advanced by the parliamentary commission of inquiry pointed to the disruption caused by the reorganization of the secret services at the end of 1977, a reorganization that followed revelations of their complicity with rightwing terrorism. But the “reform” of the secret services had more sinister aspects than mere confusion. The idea was that by dividing the notorious SID (Servizio Informazioni Difesa, “Defense Information Service”) into two new organizations, SISMI and SISDE, responsible respectively for military and civil intelligence, some kind of balance and reciprocal control could be created as a safeguard. But in fact the heads of both of the new organizations belonged to the secret P2 freemason’s lodge, organized as a kind of corrupt private government by Licio Gelli. The effect of the reform was, if anything, to strengthen the web of conspiracy and collusion.

Moreover, the officials who had proved most effective in the campaign against the Red Brigades were deliberately left out of the Moro case. The antiterrorist office headed by Emilio Santillo had been carrying out a full investigation of the Red Brigades; it was broken up and the investigation was never completed. The famous General Dalla Chiesa, who had been the most effective opponent of the Red Brigades, was only brought back to head the campaign against them after Moro’s death. At the time of the Moro kidnapping the specialized security apparatus designed to deal with internal terrorism had been virtually dismantled.

Was this just chance? Tina Anselmi, the head of the parliamentary commission that investigated the P2, believed not, and she thought that Moro may have been allowed to die because he was an obstacle to Gelli’s obscure designs. In the days before his death, a journalist close to Gelli remarked that Moro’s “terrible experience…might even prove useful to the country. Tacitus wrote that ‘the killing of Caesar seemed to some a barbarous crime, to others a most happy event.”‘9 Giorgio Galli’s thesis that there may have been a conspiracy not of commission but of omission, should be taken seriously as far as this critical period is concerned, even if elsewhere his interpretation of events often seems strained.10

Italy is a country where the improbable is always possible. Even the imagination of a thriller writer would have been taxed to invent figures like Licio Gelli or Michele Sindona. Sciascia himself compares the Moro affair to “something already written, something inhabiting a sphere of intangible literary perfection.” His essay on the Moro affair is printed together with a companion piece, “The Mystery of Majorana,” about the disappearance of a brilliant Sicilian physicist in 1938. Both essays show how Sciascia is fascinated by the process of detection. Several of his finest novels are, in fact, detective stories. But their intent is exactly opposite to that of the classical detective story, as defined by Auden in a famous essay, “The Guilty Vicarage.” The knowledge that guilt, however well concealed, will be revealed and punished, Auden wrote, restores the innocence of the world. Instead, in Sciascia’s detective stories every step toward the solution of the crime also leads the investigator nearer to his predestined failure. This may simply mean frustration and removal of the detective from the case, as in Il giorno della civetta and in Il contesto; in the finest and most terrifying example of the genre, A ciascuno il suo, it means death.11

At one level Sciascia is expressing his well-founded skepticism about the possibility of obtaining justice in Italy in any case involving politics or the Mafia. But at another level Sciascia is also expressing a metaphysical conception of his own. As he says in “The Mystery of Majorana,” “at the precise moment when a secret is completely unveiled…at that moment all that remains is death.” Death is at the center of the labyrinth. Sciascia offers the reader a thread of clues; but he seems always to be saying: take care, the thread may break, or end in a tangled knot. He approaches texts and events like a palm reader, trying to decipher what he calls a “rational…mystery of essences and correspondences, a tight, uninterrupted network of almost imperceptible, almost inexpressible significances linking one point to another.”

Sciascia’s political attitudes have often been attacked as irresponsible. The first major scandal he caused was in 1977, when he expressed sympathy for those who had refused to serve as jurors in the trial of Renato Curcio and his companions,12 arguing that a government that had shown itself unable to protect its citizens should not require them to risk their lives as jurors. The most recent example was in January of this year, when he expressed skepticism about the coalition of “anti-Mafia” forces in Sicily, which he saw as self-serving. It is easy to see why the small number of courageous citizens, magistrates, and policemen who are struggling at great personal risk to combat terrorism or the Mafia might feel that Sciascia’s skepticism was not particularly helpful. However, the strongest reaction has usually come from politicians and journalists. One may not always agree with Sciascia’s judgments, but what some call irresponsibility is in fact the freedom of the critical intellectual to speak the truth as he sees it. As in the case of Orwell, Sciascia’s constant and suspicious attention to political language is not just a writer’s fad but an indispensable means of defense against the lies of power and ideology. When the demand comes for intellectuals to stand up and be counted, Sciascia replies that he wants to do the counting.

This Issue

June 25, 1987