For Italians, November 12, 2003 will always be a day of infamy, Italy's September 11. That was the day when 19 Italian soldiers and carabinieri were killed by a suicide bomber who drove a powerful car bomb up to their compound in the Iraqi town of Nasariya.
The number of last week's casualties may not compare with the number of victims in the United States of September 11, but for the Italian people, the shock was huge. It was the biggest number of Italian lives lost in one day in a military operation since World War II. Dominating the news and conversation everywhere, it brought out the best and the worst in the Italian people -- but mostly the best, as Americans have come to expect from some of their staunchest allies in Europe.
While opposition parties led by the Communists blamed Italian support of the United States and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the 3,000 Italians currently serving under British command in Iraq, the conservative government and the vast majority of Italians expressed very different feelings.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that his country would not be intimidated and praised the courage and humanity of Italians serving in Iraq. Many Italians felt not just that their own children were under attack, but also a sense of national pride that they were in Iraq to help children there, working to open schools and make lives better.
"Their reaction was extremely unexpected," says Ferdinando Adornato, an Italian member of parliament and head of the free-market group Fondazione Liberal. "Italians reacted with courage and dignity." The families of the killed spoke of the duty of the soldiers and the carabinieri, of their mission of peace.
The Italian forces had deliberately left their compound light on security to be accessible to the population of Nasariya. This, of course, made them an easy target, just like the United Nations, the Red Cross and even Iraqi mosques. The bombing was yet another demonstration that the terrorists will kill indiscriminately if it serves the purpose of creating chaos and driving foreign forces out.
In letters and email, which have been widely published since the bombing, the Italians told of their reconstruction work and of their friendship with local Iraqi children, giving a very different impression than the prevailing negative news coverage in the Italian media. Carabiniari who were wounded, have asked to go back to continue their work. In fact, after the bombing, the people of Nasariya took the streets in a peaceful demonstration against the terrorist attacks.
"We are so proud of those lads and of those who have returned and of their stories of what Italians are doing in Iraq," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Saturday, speaking immediately before heading to the airport for the somber task of greeting the returning bodies.
The Italian government's support for the U.S. work in Iraq, Mr. Frattini continued, shows that "we in Europe have not forgotten what the United States did for us in Italy. It shows what we can do with our friends in the United States and that we would never be an antagonist of the United States. We are united to fight, to give no quarter to terrorism. It is not something that just affects the United States."
Those are words of comfort, but the question is whether the attack on Italians will have an effect on European attitudes towards the war on terrorism. Across Europe there is still widespread complacency, a feeling that terrorism is an American problem -- if a problem at all -- not a European one. In a startling image conjured up by French philospher Andre Glucksmann, it is a bit like feeling sorry for an AIDS patient, convinced that you will not catch the disease yourself.
In Italy, this confidence has been shaken, and attitudes are different. In part, says Mr. Adornato, this is due to the Berlusconi government, which has followed a course close to the United States and made Italy a valuable ally along with Britain, Spain, Portugal, and countries in Eastern and Central Europe as well as Scandinavia. The Italian government's affinity with the Bush administration is "philosophical, ethical and cultural," Mr. Adornato says.
"The American public should know that even if there are demonstrations, the sentiments are not shared by the majority of Italians. We are not like 'Old Europe.' "
There's a good deal of relief in that thought. This week, President Bush is braving a storm of negative public opinion in Britain, a country whose government has provided unwavering support in Iraq at the expense of its own domestic popularity. At such a time, Italians provide a welcome reminder that not all of Europe has gone haywire.
Helle Dale is Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Washington Times