Feature Articles

August 2011

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

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

* * *

"Who stabbed you?"
"I don't know."
"How did it happen?"
"I was walking home. A man passed by and cut me."
"Did you recognize him?"

(In Italian):
"Chi e` stato che vi ha ferito?"
"Non so."
"Come e` andata la cosa?"
"Io me n'andavo a casa, e` passato uno e mi ha dato una coltellata."
"Non lo avete riconosciuto?"
(An interrogation by the Palermo, Sicily, police of a man who was attacked on the street.
Source: Caro Corsi. Sicilia, 1894)

     The right to punish the offender, the mafioso reserves exclusively to himself. Justice for him is only an intruder, and the omertoso code obliges him to act deceptively. The mafioso called to testify will say nothing, will know nothing. Only when backed to the wall, will he say that it is no longer possible to remain silent. Among the people, the code is well known but not necessarily practiced, not in a systematic manner. For mafiosi, it is a commandment that extends to any perceived offense. This Sicilian saying is appropriate: "A chi ti toglie il pane e tu togligli la vita." Who takes from you bread, you take from him life.

     An article in The New York Times (April 27, 1892) defined the concept of omerta` as at the roots of mafioso comportment, a special code, "the mafia abstraction of morality, which establishes as the first duty of a man to do for himself justice, and stamps with infamy and holds up to public execration [to denounce, hold in abomination] and public vengeance whoever appeals to justice or assists its operations. Giving evidence is good as long as it does no harm to the neighbor. Even the honest common people regard it as a virtue to hide an assassin from the pursuit of justice, or refuse to testify against him." The values held dear included honor, respect, faithfulness and remaining true to self.

     Solidarity among members of a criminal group is consistent with the principle of not revealing to the authorities the commission of a crime, even though against yourself. It is a kind of sentiment of honor among thieves; without such a norm the activities of a secret organization would be easily opened up to severe scrutiny. One informer can weaken or possibly destroy that solidarity. Omerta`, the word itself, has a history going back to the middle 1800s, and probably before. This word perhaps derives from "humility" in the sense of submission to the offense with the object of personal vendetta. Or, perhaps, the word is from omu (Sicilian for man), to signify the value of manhood, that is honor, as implied in the word galantomismo.

     Mafia is not in itself a designation of a criminal organization. It represents the spirit that informs and generates the cosche, the criminal groups themselves, quasi or fully independent entities that can and do differ from each other depending on location, era, opportunity, effectiveness, and specialization. These factors by their very nature make difficult the notion of a universal solidarity among cosche. The notion that a mafia commission, or cupola, ever existed for any length of time or had any sustained influence over a group of cosche is debatable.

     The word cosca refers to a leafy plant, the center hard part, such as in lettuce, an onion, a cabbage or any plant that is divided into segments. Using the artichoke as an example, cosca refers to the leaf and the entire plant, the leaves are the members of the cosca (clan) and the capo is the entire plant, such that the capo represents the plant and the members its leaves. Even if cosche ceased to exist, the mafia as a phenomenon, a subculture, if you will, would continue. Because mafia does not refer to a thing or a person but rather a mode of feeling, of being, of thinking, of acting; in brief, a mind set, from which comes criminality fueled by moral laxness and profound cynicism.

     Two rules obtain: that of silence and that of truth (omerta` o verita`). They are two faces of the same coin. Either you remain mute or if you do speak truthfulness will out. The "cult of obsessive reticence," as one Italian writer noted, constitutes a vital value at the core of the fraternity itself. This omertoso attitude is the hallmark of the essence of the phrase "men of honor," their comportment being honorable both in silence and speech, but never overly verbose. The informer Tommaso Buscetta said when speaking of the "true" mafioso, in this case Antonino Calderone, "He was an intelligent and serious man. He talked seldom." Another informer from Milan said of his cosca members, "They were serious persons and talked sparingly. When they did it was with purpose." Proud men do not lie. They do not obfuscate. It is beneath their dignity.

     The Italian word affratellamento refers to a strong fraternal union with a kindred closeness that is essential to cementing the commitment to the iron clad rule of omerta`. The following traditional Sicilian ditty, below, was sung to teach the consequences of not holding one's tongue in confrontation with the authorities. Its lesson is that silence protects the integrity of the fraternity-to talk is to be disgraced forever.

(In Sicilian):
Cu la Gran Curti comu si cci parra?
Pocu paroli e cu' l'ucchiuzzi in terra.
L'omu chi parra assai sempre la sgarra.
Cu la so' stissa vucca si disterrare.
(Source : Giuseppe Pitre`, Biblioteca della tradizioni popolare Siciliane, 1870)

(The translation):
Before the Grand Courts how do you speak?
Few words and with eyes downcast.
The loquacious man always errors.
With his mouth he condemns himself to exile.


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