A Big Day in Italy

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano looks on during the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Quirinale Palace i
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano looks on during the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Quirinale Palace in Rome on April 28, 2013. Italy's new coalition government was sworn in today, bringing fresh hope to a country mired in recession after two months of bitter post-election deadlock watched closely by European partners. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

The ministers of the new Italian government were sworn by the reelected, new/old, physically ancient president of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano. Half a mile away, a despairing 49-year-old who had lost both his wife and his job shot two policemen in front of a government building. The assailant wore a tie and a nice dark suit. He ran out of bullets before he could shoot himself with his black-market handgun.

So he fled the scene of his mayhem, but he was immediately caught by the police. Naturally, in this country where political tension and terror are always a living presence, everyone feared for the worst -- especially the interior minister, whose face showed visible concern as he attended the swearing-in ceremony.

It's been a complicated path to the formation of this latest Italian government, even by Italian standards. After years of partisan stagnation, the Internet movement of the histrionic comedian Beppe Grillo had emerged as a new force and a possible power broker in Parliament. But the Movimento 5 Stelle, as Grillo's insurgent party is known, refused to play by the conventional rules of Italian patronage.

Grillo, who is not an elected official and always seems to prefer a good ruckus to actually wielding power, had a falling out with a faction of his own "Grillini." This led to protracted party wrangling that finally ended with the M5S going back to the Internet to poll its own grassroots supporters.

Grillo recently threatened to march on Rome at the head of his massed supporters, a tactic familiar to both Garibaldi and Mussolini, but not the usual maneuver when one fails to place one's own candidate for the president of the republic. Italian politics has become a shadow-boxing contest between the clownish populist Grillo, the maestro of Internet politics, and the clownish television mogul Berlusconi, who still looms large in Italy despite his many legal cases and his appalling personal life.

A prominent Italian political analyst said:

"I don't despise Grillo as much as most of the people I know. Despite his rough and ready methods, after all, Grillo has managed to improve the Italian political scene. It will never be the same again: We have young people and women entering the parliament in large numbers, and finally party leaders and bureaucrats have to deal with a new political force."

But an old Italian Berlusconi voter told me: "Grillo is just like Berlusconi. I voted for Berlusconi when he was young and I was too. I still vote for Berlusconi because he is a true representative of Italian people as we are, for good or for bad. But he's of an older generation. Now it's Grillo's time."

Cases of severe governmental corruption from the past are shaking Italy day by day. The misdeeds of party functionaries, as eager as ever to take their bribes and embezzle the taxes, are harder to endure when public hospitals schools and libraries are closing. There seem to be no lines left between the public good and private profit, while unemployment rises and business collapses, and bankruptcies and suicides are common. Entire families who cannot survive the austerity are found dead at home, having written rather reasonable and dignified goodbye letters.

The middle-aged and armed assailant who shot two policemen in front of the Italian government was not an organized terrorist. He was a jobless desperado loudly committing "suicide by cop" through a misery many Italians will recognize.

Meanwhile, President Napolitano, a creaking 87 years old, was forced into office yet again through the Parliament's inability to manage its own affairs. The elder statesmen gave them a hard reprimand, admonishing them that he took up this task against his will and own good sense, in order to save the country. Napolitano even broke into tears, for he personally remembers the historical days of the resistance against fascism in the second world war. This very respected politician has somehow kept credibility with the left and right during the many decades since, but rarely, if ever, has the situation he faces been this sordid and muddled.

Now the right and left have formed a truly peculiar post-ideological national coalition that exists mostly to exclude the Grillini. There are some new faces taking power here and there, and the atmosphere among the "caste" of left/right time-servers seemed unusually cordial. Things seemed calm, even, until the lone gunman arrived from Piedmont and checked into a Roman hotel room. After his arrest he declared that he was on his way to kill some politicians; unfortunately the police officers were frustrating him, so he had to shoot two of them instead.

A pregnant passerby was also randomly hit by a bit of shrapnel. Her wound was minor, but it was a fearful shock for a vulnerable woman on a luckless day. The Italian people must share that sentiment.