The Paris Terrorist Attacks: A View From Rome

Writing from Rome nearly two weeks removed from the horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris, it is clear that these acts of barbarism have resonated within the Italian capital. While the threat of domestically-based Islamic terrorists is markedly less than that faced by France, Germany, Belgium or England, the prospect of terror in the Eternal City remains uncomfortably high.

Predictably, the terror attack and the subsequent police operations in Belgium and France dominated media coverage. But unfortunately, as in the wake of so many previous terrorist attacks, the image and legend of the alleged planner of the attacks Abdelhamid Abaaoud was drastically overblown. It may be a difficult editorial decision to dedicate blocks of time to the "mastermind," particularly in lulls in the actual story, but the international news networks have by and large gone well overboard in their portrayals of both Abaaoud and the power and reach of the Islamic State, only exacerbating local fears and greatly enhancing the group's international "brand" even as it suffered serious reversals in Syria.

However, the impact of the attack in Rome has also been shaped by two important currents: one old and one new. The first is the ongoing refugee problem that has confronted Italy for some time. Having been on the front line of a crisis that has only been gaining momentum in recent years, Italy has already weathered a major influx of immigrants with almost 140,000 expected this year, equaling last year's number. And while the Italian government and Italian people have been welcoming, the stresses on the system are evident as growing complaints about the treatment and living conditions of migrants and refugees emerge. In a country that has suffered a long-term economic downturn amidst the forced austerity program imposed in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent 2011 Italian debt crisis, the implementation of an effective and coherent policy response to the ongoing refugee problem has presented a formidable challenge for the Italian government.

To provide some context, Italy's economic recovery has been difficult and painful enough. The Italian economy reportedly grew at .9% for the third quarter of 2015, marking three straight quarters of very modest growth. Unemployment remains stubbornly high as well, with recent number placing the rate at over 11%. However, youth unemployment is a staggering 40%, only slightly down from an all-time high of 43.7% in March of 2014.

Italian politics reflect deep and widening divisions about the course of the nation and the proper path to effectively address these difficult problems. Despite a strong message of support for the plight of migrants from Pope Francis, conservative politicians have seemingly gained traction by focusing on the question of immigration in a time of economic trouble and an underlying resentment of European Union (EU) policies. In short, there is prevailing sense of unease and frustration and it is unsurprising given the conditions of the nation. The second and more immediate perceived threat has emerged from the prospect of millions of Catholic pilgrims expected to travel to Rome in the next year. For many who make livings related to the tourism industry here, the idea of Pope Francis's 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy (which actually begins next week with the December 8th Feast of the Immaculate Conception) is viewed with increasing anxiety--if not outright fear--in the wake of the Paris attacks. Massive flows of pilgrims, coupled with the ongoing refugee crisis, are viewed as creating a problem that is simply too great for the Italian system to accommodate, even in an era of heightened security and constant alert. Given the fundamental challenges confronting both its economy and polity, the concerns and anxieties of the Italian people seem well-placed and understandable, and beyond the immediate fears sparked by the prospect of Islamic terrorists entering the country with refugees or pilgrims. However, under these conditions, a terrorist attack in Rome or elsewhere in Italy may indeed trigger the type of ugly domestic political backlash that would only further the objectives of those like the Islamic State who seek to create a bogus "civilizational" conflict. The far greater tragedy, however, would be if such a terrible event drove the people of this country to be less welcoming and less inviting to outsiders, something that is so central to and such a defining characteristic of those who inhabit the Eternal City.