The death of Giovanni Lo Porto, the Italian aid worker killed in a drone strike in Pakistan last January, had the potential for becoming a diplomatic incident–or at least to cause some tension between the US and Italy. This is especially true in light of the modality by which the incident has been disclosed, and the polemics that followed.
Instead, less than a week from the incident the issue completely disappeared from the online pages of the most authoritative Italian newspapers. The quick disappearance can be explained in physiological terms: the constant flow of news does not allow for a specific topic to stay at the very top of a webpage for too long – subsequently, the earthquake in Nepal has taken over the headlines. However, there can be another explanation: the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, despite his anguish for the death of the Italian hostage, currently cannot afford his position being impinged, be it by yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean, or a drone strike gone wrong. Hence the need to close the debate as soon as possible.
Lo Porto’s death happened at a very crucial moment in Italian domestic politics: the Parliament has been discussing the new electoral law for months and was about to decide whether to support it or not. The proposed law was highly criticized and firmly opposed by not only the opposition, but also by a consistent minority within Renzi’s own party, the PD (Democratic Party), and the forthcoming decision about it can determine the very survival of Renzi’s government. From this perspective, Renzi’s mid- April official visit to the US takes on a completely new symbolic value, that is, international recognition that can be spent at home as leverage to curb the opposition.
After the highly publicized trip to the White House, Lo Porto’s death happened to have terrible timing. In fact, one can question the true extent of the power dynamics behind Obama’s statement that “Italy, of course, is one of [United States’] closest and strongest allies” since the Italian government was informed only three months after the incident occurred, and, more specifically, almost a week after Renzi’s visit. In other words, Italy’s international standing might not be as strong as Obama would like Italy to believe. This in turn could weaken Renzi’s personal standing in his home country.
The precarious equilibrium faced by Renzi’s government can be seen as the rationale behind the straightforward dismissal of Obama’s responsibility on the issue: In a press release Renzi said that he deeply appreciated the American president’s transparency on the matter, and that this will not mar Italy’s commitment in the fight against terrorism. Furthermore, Renzi made clear that the real culprit is not the Obama administration, rather the terrorists themselves. Indeed, as he explained, the incident stemmed from the “fact that [Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein] were held hostages by a terrorist organization, which put their lives in danger with what happened.” This position has been upheld by Italy’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, who last Friday reported back on the issue to an almost empty Parliament. These statements clearly closed any door to further polemics on the matter, thus giving the green light to Italian newspapers to close – at least temporarily – the case and move on to other important world news.
Renzi’s proposed electoral reforms have since been approved, uninhibited by the would-be scandal.
One thing, however, needs to be pointed out: although in Renzi’s mind blaming the terrorist might have been an easy scapegoat, he has not realized that he indirectly blamed the victims. Saying that, were not for the fact that Lo Porto and Weinstein were held hostages, today they would be still alive—this is tantamount saying that were they not there in the first place, they would have not risked their lives and been kidnapped, thus they would be still with us. Unfortunately, this way of reasoning is at best fallacious, at worst, disrespectful towards the victims and their families. In this affair, there is no beating around the bush: Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein were killed by drone in a strike authorized by the Obama administration. Mr. Renzi, there is your culprit.