Omertà (Italy)

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Omertà
Location: Italy
Italy map.png
Author: Anna Sergi
Affiliation: Department of Sociology, University of Essex

Original text by Anna Sergi

Omertà denotes a code of honour that requires a person to maintain silence about crimes or other illegal actions that they either witnessed or came to know about, whether directly or indirectly. The individual is obliged to protect the identity of the perpetrator and must not reveal any information that might draw the perpetrator to the attention of the authorities. This is the case even when the individual was themself the victim of the crime.

The term is used almost exclusively in connection with crimes committed by mafia-type organisations. It enables such organisation to rely on the omertà of entire communities as protection against investigation and/or prosecution by state law-enforcement agencies.

The origin of the word omertà is contested. One of the earliest explanations was that proposed by Giuseppe Pitré, an ethnologist from Palermo who linked the term to the Italian word uomo (man), thereby associating it with ‘manhood’ or ‘virility’ (Lupo 2011[1]). In this sense, omertà is the attribute of a man who is essentially responsible for himself and who remains independent of the law and the state. This meaning has however been criticised morally as it might link the idea of manhood to disrespect for collective values. Indeed, it might condone behaviours outside the law, including vendettas and vigilantism. Another suggestion traces the origin of the word to the Italian word umiltà, meaning ‘humbleness’ but, in certain areas of Southern Italy, denoting ‘discretion ‘ or ‘privacy.’ In the Sicilian dialect, the word is pronounced umirtà, which might explain the derivation of omertà (Alongi 1977 [1886][2]). This explanation has also, however, been criticised on the grounds that it justifies silence and non-cooperation as acts of discretion rather than as attempts to pervert the course of justice (Deaglio 1993[3]). As a result, the precise origin of the word remains unclear. As the word is used today, however, it appears to borrow from both etymologies. The idea that if someone minds their own businesses and does not get involved in things that do not directly pertain to them is seen, in many cultures prevalent in Southern Italy, as a sign of ‘manhood.’

In English, the word omertà is often written without the stress on the final ‘a’ – omerta. It is usually translated as ‘code of silence’ or ‘conspiracy of silence’ and is used almost exclusively in relation to the behaviour of mafia members and external supporters (Albanese 1996[4]). When used in the English-speaking world, the term often has a very specific connotation, deriving from the fight by the US authorities against Italian-American Cosa Nostra families. From the Italian viewpoint, the way the term is used abroad gives rise to considerable confusion. It seems that omertà in these circumstances is used to define a specific affiliation to mafia organisations that results in mafia members and their families or supporters refusing to cooperate with the authorities and behaving, instead, as a secret society.

Photograph used to represent cultural practices in Southern Italy. Artist: jesuscm

It may appear, when the term omertà is translated, that the behaviour it encapsulates is specifically Italian. This is not however the case. On the contrary: it may be argued that refusing, out of sense of privacy and of honour, to cooperate with the authorities is a much more widespread phenomenon. It is found in every secret and/or criminal organisation in the world, from youth gangs to drug-trafficking networks. It is however true, as Schneider and Schneider (2005[5]) have argued, that the essential features of omertà – the element of choice of this behaviour rather than its coercion, paired with its collective dimension – are peculiar to certain enclave cultures, not just in Italy but everywhere in the world where small, geographically isolated communities are found.

There is, moreover, a darker meaning to the word omertà as it is used today in Italy. While in Southern Italy the word has long been essentially associated with mafia-type organisations, this has recently become increasingly the case in the north of the country too. In its common usage, omertà denotes ‘the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on its [the state’s] services, even when one has been victim of a crime’ (Paoli 2003: 109[6]). Violation of this prohibition can result in the murder of an individual who shares information with the authorities, since snitchers are not welcome in any secret and/or criminal organisation. With this more structured meaning, the term has entered the law in Italy, whereby article 416-bis of the Italian Penal Code identifies behaviour motivated by omertà as one of the characteristic elements of the mafia clans. The criminalisation of membership of mafia associations in Italy is, as a result, based on the criminalisation of a set of behaviours (Sergi 2014[7]) that manifest themselves through social harm. Omertà is a red flag for communities and individuals, warning them of the danger of such social harm.

One problem behind the definition of omertà is the difficulty of capturing what it essentially is, how it manifests itself, and how it can be measured and/or assessed. Often no formal or explicit prohibition is placed on the act of talking to the authorities. Rather, the behaviour that is demanded is one of voluntary omission, dependent on the choice and judgment of a particular individual within a given community. It follows that it is at times very difficult to distinguish between omertà and the silence originating from discretion and privacy. It is not uncommon—particularly though not exclusively in small communities—to consider silence the best practice when it comes to business unrelated to oneself or one’s family. Except when silence becomes criminal conduct—lying to the authorities, for example, especially cases relating to mafia crimes—many local communities actively promote the principle of silence. In many southern Italian villages, for example, one sees posters in local dialects whose message translates as, ‘Whoever minds their own business will live a hundred years and will live a better life.’ This attitude, entrenched as it is in popular culture, may or may not have anything to do with mafia protection-rackets and/or a low sense of civic duty.

Clearly, however, omertà is not a positive practice. The opposite is the case. Civic engagement is a crucial factor in the fight against organised crime (Cayli 2013[8]). This is especially true in those regions were law-enforcement agencies struggle to penetrate the dense networks of mafia engagement. If the fight against mafias is to succeed, it will be essential for local populations actively to reject mafia influence and dominance (Dickie 2007[9]; Arlacchi 1986[10]; La Spina 2014[11]). At the same time, however, omertà should not be considered simply as a clear-cut code of (mafia) (dis)honour to which people from certain areas and certain cultures subscribe. Omertà can be found in many forms and in many communities around the world, but it goes under different names and is not always commonly recognised for what it is.

Notes

  1. Lupo S. 2011. History of the Mafia. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. Alongi G. 1977 (1886). La maffia nei suoi fattori e nelle sue manifestazioni: studio sulle classi pericolose della Sicilia. Turin: Bocca.
  3. Deaglio E. 1993. Raccolto rosso: la mafia, l'Itali: e poi venne giù tutto. Milan: Feltrinelli.
  4. Albanese, J. 1996. Organized Crime in America. 3rd edition. Cincinnati: Anderson.
  5. Schneider J. and Schneider P. 2005. 'Mafia, Antimafia, and the Plural Cultures of Sicily,' Current Anthropology 46(4): 501-20.
  6. Paoli L. 2003. Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Sergi A. 2014. 'Organised Crime in Criminal Law. Conspiracy and Membership Offences in Italian, English and International Frameworks, King's Law Journal 25(2): 185-200.
  8. Cayli B. 2013. 'Italian Civil Society against the Mafia: From Perceptions to Expectations,' International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice 41(1): 81-99.
  9. Dickie J. 2007. Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia. London: Hodder.
  10. Arlacchi P. 1986. Mafia Business : Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Verso.
  11. La Spina A. 2014. 'The Fight against the Italian Mafia,' in Paoli L. (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime. Oxford: Oxford University Press.