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Feature Articles


September 2014
Omertá and Solidarity

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

“All for one and one for all.” (The Three Musketeers)

      The concept of omerta’ as an “honorable silence” toward the authorities was hardly some unique code of the mafia. Looking at the history of brigandage in the Italian south, denouncing partners in crime simply did not happen. During an outbreak of extensive bands of roving brigands in the 1860s, one Italian military officer noted: “I never saw a case when a captured brigand preferred to denounce his comrades or those who gave him refuge. They all went before the firing squad with lips sealed.”

“Why should I continue to be a mafioso if the others do not respect our laws? I am proud to have turned state’s witness even though my family in my village in Calabria has dressed in black mourning. They have disowned me. To them, I am dead.” (Rocco Varacalli, former member of the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta in northern Italy.)

“Thou shall not snitch to the cops.” ((Dixie mafia motto)

     Loyalty has become a relic of the past. The much vaunted code of conduct has been revealed as tissue thin when it comes to self-preservation. People are loyal until it’s opportune not to be. RICO and similar statutes in Italy carry the promise of swift and harsh justice, creating a wave of turncoat cooperating witnesses. The Goodfellas are no longer good to each other. Fuhgeddaboudit!

     The omerta’ commandment, Thou shall not squeal on others, can only function in an environment where the state is lax and the traditional values of the village piazza reign supreme. Modernity brings with it the culture of competitiveness and stress on individuality, a “better you than me” philosophy, not the commonality of the Commons.

     In the best of all hoodlum worlds your lips are sealed forever from revealing the inner recesses of mob business. The code of silence must be absolute if “This thing of ours” is to survive and flourish. He who betrays that code for selfish purposes is a rat. To rat-out someone is a sin from which there is no escape. Today that code is in tatters. The feeble attempts by American mafia bosses to resurrect the ancient religious initiation ceremonies have resulted in pathetic caricatures. Who could possibly take seriously a medieval rite in today’s secular world?

     The most severe critics of organized crime and its members, those who have witnessed it up close in its various manifestations, have found it neither romantic nor redeeming; its life a sham, bleak, ignorant, nothing more than the quest for money. When the scam is interrupted by the authorities, becoming a cooperating witness becomes an easy path to a good retirement plan. Self-preservation becomes the order of the day.

     Among an older Sicilian-American generation, those who bonded through family and village ties, learning that life is difficult and good fortune comes to the precious few was a hard lesson learned. Inner strength was a highly valued masculine trait. Let the women gossip; trivialities were not for men.

     Now we find both in Sicily and in the United States the mob is not what it was purported to be. Life is now good; mobsters have grown comfortable and urbanized. Village virtues have been replaced by urban values. Solidarity has been replaced by individuality, and a complexity of profitable racketeering opportunities that would have amazed the Mustache Petes. Why play the tough guy who is willing to take one for the team, willing to rot in prison for his beliefs? Urban mobsters who are bound only by the capitalistic imperative (the big earners are the most valued), who give lip service to group loyalty, are the ones most likely to flip. Then the fabled structure collapses like of house of cards. A chain is only as strong as it weakest link.

     The manifestations of gangs have much in common. The concept covers a broad spectrum; In true gang loyalty one person’s dilemma becomes the gang’s dilemma. To gang-up means to come together as a cohesive unit. To be part of a gang is to be invested in it full time. Fellowship within a gang can be so complete that the personality becomes completely absorbed. Gang members come together seeking a solution to a problem common to each of them. It can be a lack of sufficient familial ties, which the person seeks. It can be a solution to a lack of identity, a search for a soft landing. It can be that the individual is an outlier and cannot adjust to the expectations of everyday society. The attachment to the “deviant” group can be so strong that it resembles a love relationship, and some of the interaction among the members suggests just that. The mob boss is the “father” and fealty must be paid to him.

     Consider the following conversation taken from the book by Anthony M. De Stefano (2013), Vinny Gorgeous: The Rise and Fall of a New York Mobster, which was intercepted by a wire worn by one of the interlocutors.

“The trio sat at the diner for about two hours, nursing their coffees, not rushed for time. They talked openly about a wide variety of topics that in retrospect didn’t seem prudent for such a public place. Basciano in particular raved about his new acting captain, Cicale, whom he called a ‘hoodlum’ as a compliment. He also lamented that loyalty, a quality that Basciano held dear, was sorely lacking in the mob. Massino was his boss, and only he deserved fealty, said Basciano.

“’I got 100 percent faith in him,’ Basciano said. ‘If I’m your guy, I’m gonna walk on hot coals, If I gotta jump in the ocean, let me do it for one guy. Divided loyalty only makes you a whore. I got faith in one guy. And that is where my allegiance is always gonna be. That’s it, I’m living and dying for one guy. I don’t want all those things I hold sacred to be a fraud.’ ‘And that’s a good position,’ Tartaglione agreed.”


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