Feature Articles

July 2009
The Rise And Fall Of Omertà

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

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

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"The shepherds' world is very closed. They feel very much on Cosa Nostra's side. Anyone who is on the other side, who doesn't do what they are told, is a sbirro, a spy. You would never find a shepherd in these parts who would willingly tell investigators anything." (Comment by a Corleone, Sicily, resident on the peasant code of silence.)

     Omertà can be considered as a condition of contempt toward the law, hatred of authority and a resolute bias against those who relate to the society's institutions. The main tenant was a refusal to collaborate with the justice system that was strengthened by an extreme provincialism and a fraternal understanding that forbade close contact with outsiders.

     This normative characteristic originally referred to positive values and a buffer between the community and an alien world. After Italian unification in the 1860s and the priority on nation building the term took on a sinister connotation as it became associated with "men of honor," who employed the norm to protect and promote anti-social and anti-establishment attitudes. Earlier Italian writers saw the condition as an indispensable element of the Sicilian worldview that was especially cultivated by some to create the "spirit of the mafia," a Sicilian cultural component that was an amalgam of "exasperated Sicilianismo and an omertoso sentiment."

(Omertà: to be men; to have blood in your veins. From the Sicilian word omu, man. In Sicilian, omu becomes omirtà. Omertoso is the adjective. The emphasis on manliness and the nobility of honor is hardly unique to Sicily, despite assertions that Sicilians are a special case. All secret societies practice silence. Compare the Spanish machismo, and similar attitudes in other honor cultures, both criminal and non-criminal.)  

     The honor code establishes as the first duty of a man is to seek justice (retribution or revenge) with his own hands when he perceives an injustice. It dictates that when there is a death one must think of the living, and that to testify against someone is acceptable as long as your neighbor suffers no harm. The bond is an allegiance based on blood and kin; a fraternal agreement of averting your eyes as a protective mechanism.

     The citizenry accorded considerable allowance to the "men of respect." They held sway over the villages, acting as unofficial authorities, with the villagers granting them that power. The men could be a wagon driver, a priest, a doctor, a lawyer, a farm manager, a merchant. They (and their families) gained a respectful status through charisma, a talent for dealing with people, and by developing an absolutist atmosphere around their persons.

     They were men of esteem, available to grant favors, to resolve everyday disputes, questions of family honor, the retrieval of stolen property, in effect managing the village's political system. Because of the snail-like pace of official judicial procedures and uncertain outcomes, they would be called upon to circumvent the legal mechanisms with timely solutions, solutions that often were more in keeping with village values. The omertoso personality was understated; controversies were concluded with few words and definitive results. Questions of individual integrity (losing face) were considered quite serious and needed a steady hand as honor and violence were interconnected in traditional Sicily. In turn, the recipient of favors reciprocated with manifestations of mutual fidelity.

"Il mafioso è semplicemente un uomo coraggioso e valente, che non porta mosca sul naso."   ("The mafioso is simply a valiant and courageous man who does not suffer a fly on his nose.") 

"Che c'entra la giustizia nelle mie cose? Ai fatti miei so bastare io stesso!" ("Where does justice enter in regard to me? My affairs are my business only!")

     A man of this caliber was known as an omu d'onuri, a man of honor, or a vero cristiano. (Christian in this context signifying a true person.) Or also an omu di panza, literally a man of the stomach, one with "guts," without fear or outward display.

     There was a strong sense of "I"; an exaggerated egoism or conceit with utmost self-regard; a man in command of his surroundings. One who manifested a belief of total superiority. A desire to be absolutely independent was strong, a personality trait considered by Sicilian scholars to be a central component of the Sicilian character.

     A survival instinct underlies the omertà value system. Note a few appropriate old Sicilian sayings:

"A cu ti leva lu pari levacci lu vita." ("Whosoever deprives you of the means of existence, deprive him of his life.")

"Scupetta e mugghieri nun si 'mprestano." (A gun and a wife are not lent.")

"Si moru mi drivocu; si campu t'allampu." ("If I die they will bury me; if I live I will kill you.")

     Such maxims are terrible in their cynical contempt for justice as meted out by the law, and full of savage sentiments. Pathos is evident as well as a ring of chivalrous devotion to a companion in distress. The Italian government viewed such a morality as atavistic, out of tune with the times, a baseness reflecting the worst aspects of peasant culture and sanctioning criminality of all sorts.

     As we arrive to the present era, over the decades, the outlaw omertoso morality has become increasingly weakened and antiquated as more and more criminals have looked to themselves, breaking faith with the brotherhood code to inform or "rat" on their former mates in exchange for less prison time and other considerations from the justice system. (What the informers are called, state's witnesses or disgraceful betrayers, is contingent on the viewer's perspective.)

     The state's witnesses are no longer participants in the conspiracy of silence. Their cooperation can be exploited by the authorities to induce others to break the bonds of the code, which further compromises the instrument that maintains a secret society. Old World values are receding into the dust bins of history. Modern culture, by comparison, is supremely individualistic in orientation. Interpersonal competition and self-interest have pushed aside loyalty to the collectivity and social cohesiveness.

     The enduring myth of the macho mafioso has ennobled him as a man of steel and passion who lives by a rigid code of loyalty, is coarse and brutal, yet fatally attractive to women. That popular folkloric version has recently come under close examination by Sicilian psychotherapists, who have had the occasion to peer into the minds of former mafiosi.

     They do not live up to the expectations of the myth. Such men, it turns out, have all-to-human frailties. According to therapist Girolamo Lo Verso, they suffer any number of everyday complaints such as "food disorders, anxiety, depression and sexual problems." Their wives are "disaffected from the mob, sons are a great disappointment. Real mafiosi are more interested in power and being in command than sex. They have hurried sex with their wives to have children and some have lovers to prove their virility, but it's not really a situation of passion. The total commitment to the criminal life leaves no space for the human need to love." But the myth does remain in one respect. "They have no feelings of guilt, no matter how many people they have killed. It's all part of the game."

     And the game appears in a sorry state. Omertà, which has been the sturdy pillar of what made the mafia a dreaded presence (myth and all), is now a dead letter. Mafiosi no long hide in that impenetrable silence, swearing oaths to fraternity, which confer to their crimes the characteristics one associates with what is mafia. What then remains? To quote Benito Mussolini, the ex-Italian fascist dictator, who was himself a master mythmaker, "All life is gesture."

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