Italians Use Soldiers to Prevent Crime


Soldiers were deployed throughout Italy on Monday to embassies, subway and railway stations, as part of broader government measures to fight violent crime here for which illegal immigrants are broadly blamed.


The conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi won elections in April while promising to crack down on petty crime and illegal immigrants. The new patrols of soldiers, who are not empowered to make arrests, do not seem aimed only at illegal immigrants, though the patrols were deployed to centers where illegal immigrants are housed.

“Security is something concrete,” Mr. La Russa said on Monday. The troops, he said, will be a “deterrent to criminals.”

That reminds me of one of my favorite logical fallacies: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” It does seem largely to be a demonstration of “doing something” by the Berlusconi government. The legitimate police, of course, think it’s a terrible idea.

“You need to be specially trained to carry out some kinds of controls,” Nicola Tanzi, the secretary of a trade union that represents Italian police officers. “Soldiers just aren’t qualified.”

He also questioned whether the $93.6 million that will be spent for the extra deployment, called Operation Safe Streets, might not have been better used to increase the budgets for Italy’s police and military.

Posted on August 5, 2008 at 6:36 AM55 Comments


bob August 5, 2008 6:54 AM

Just like 9/12 when Pennsylvania put National Guardsmen in airports – without ammunition! (I can only assume this was in order to make sure that any terrorists who did attack had access to the latest in weapons).

Nicola August 5, 2008 7:03 AM

Today I feel the shame of being italian.
It’s a sad day when you see your OWN army in your OWN streets. It’s something i could figure it happened in lebanon, not in Italy.

Andreas August 5, 2008 7:03 AM

What is so shocking to me is that this is in Italy. Have they learned nothing from the time of the brownshirts? Why doesn’t the civilian population recoil at the symbolism of armed soldiers in the streets?

Cristian August 5, 2008 7:32 AM

If I’m not wrong the constitution allows the employment of military forces to help official forces in case of needs.

D0R August 5, 2008 7:54 AM

Anyway, soldiers were already been used in Sicily in 1992 during the antimafia operation “Vespri Siciliani” — with success.

Matt from CT August 5, 2008 8:06 AM

Don’t forget folks, many European countries do NOT draw a distinction between civilian police and military forces at what each group may engage in as is done in the United States.

We do not have a history of gendarmes — soldiers who police civilian populations. Many, if not most, continental European countries do. Remember the link Bruce posted a few days ago about “Don’t Talk to the Police” — if you played the second part of that the police officer who spoke mentioned, from his experience when in the Navy, that Italian, French, and Spanish police have no qualms about physical coercion (roughing up the suspect). Their rules often grant more leeway then American courts would.

The Italian gendarme force, the Carabinieri, number some 110,000. Best analogy to translate it into American terms is to combine the functions of the State Police & National Guard.

This is one weakeness of American culture, although one I’m willing to live with, that has impacted us in recent wars.

In Iraq, and to some extent in Afghanistan, we needed forces with a gendarme mindset to establish security. We don’t have those traditions and experience of a truly blended police / military force; we can do civilian policing exceptionally well, and we do military operations very well, but struggle at the intersection of the two — such as the example above of Pennsylvania National Guardsmen being deployed with their weapons but no ammunition to the airports.

While we may play around on the edges, the core seperation of police and military in the U.S. is highly unlikely to change due to cultural, historical, and legal issues. We should remember that having such seperation puts us in the minority of Western nations.

Gioacchino Poletto August 5, 2008 8:07 AM

are Italian and I do not like to see the soldiers outside my door, however, in many cases are necessary.
Rome, Milan, Bari, Naples city are flooded by many non-which often come here and give the delinquency without reticence.
Theft, violence, rapes against young persons, elderly, sun.
There are moments where you feel the need for a “watchful eye” and often it feels “alone on the street”, and I hope I understand, even if my English is given by Google (for fear of not write properly).
A huge hello,

Eponymous August 5, 2008 8:08 AM


The Lebanese often find themselves wishing they could persuade their own army to take to the streets…

Anyone who works for a trade union is going to have a bias. But I don’t understand why Berlusconi thinks that soldiers who have been instructed publicly to stand down are going to be an effective deterrent. That’s kind of an expensive surveillance system, sort of a circus act with a declawed and muzzled tiger, where noone claps.

RonK August 5, 2008 8:08 AM

@ D0R

Anyway, soldiers were already been used in Sicily
in 1992 during the antimafia operation “Vespri
Siciliani” — with success.

One could argue that organized crime is much more similar to a paramilitary organization than perpetrators of random violent crimes.

To make an analogy similar to your reasoning: “surgery is effective against some cancers, so it’s also good against skin rashes”.

jeff the axe murderer August 5, 2008 8:12 AM

But if this was a gendarmerie we were talking about here, then it wouldn’t be controversial among the Italians.

kut August 5, 2008 8:14 AM

France has had something similar for years now. It’s called Plan Vigipirate :

Its main (and most visible) feature involves mixed police/military patrols in sensitive places like train stations or airports. It has to be mixed patrol since militarymen do not have the authority to make identify controls and such. Its costs are not negligible and there are recently been some protests against the living conditions of militarymen (which actually live on the sites they’re protecting in temporary housing of very poor conditions).

Also, contrary to what the WP:EN article says, and even though it was designed as a temporary measure, it was actually never suspended since terrorists attacks in France in 1995…

There hasn’t been any public events where Vigipirate actually helped stop an attack. And it sure did not prevent an riot in a major train station in late 2007 (which may even have been caused by a police identify control) :

To sum up : bullshit. And not the first time Berlusconi takes hints from Sarkozy…

Carlo Graziani August 5, 2008 8:19 AM

As pointed out above, there are no constitutional restrictions on domestic use of military units. In point of fact, the Carabinieri — the Italian equivalent of the FBI — are a branch of the armed forces. Also, I think you’ll find that there is no such constitutional restriction in the U.S., either (look up the “Whiskey Rebellion”, for example).

And, in addition to the above-cited anti-mafia intervention in Sicily, following high-profile assassinations of prosecutors and of Carabinieri General Dalla Chiesa, there were earlier deployments in major cities in the 1970’s, responses to the leftist (and rightist) terrorist violence that was common at the time.

The difference here is that there is no real state-threatening crisis to which the current deployment is a response. It’s all media manipulation for political purposes.

Berlusconi is a consummate political imagineer — he’s essentially his own Karl Rove. He is a classic bullshit artist, in the technical sense defined by Harry Frankfurt in his essay “On Bullshit”: Unlike a liar, who respects the truth insofar as he knows what the truth is, and lies to conceal it, a bullshitter has no use for the concept of truth at all, and merely manipulates argument and image to bend perception to convenient ends. That describes Berlusconi from hairline to wingtips.

That’s what’s so insidious about this deployment. Italians will at least subconsciously be referring it to earlier deployments carried out in response to genuine crises, and many will recycle their older approving emotional responses. It’s a brilliantly cynical manipulation by the best political manipulator in the business. Rove and Bush have nothing on this guy, and he makes Reagan look like Jimmy Stuart.

I’d be interested in hearing how the news coverage is choreographed on RAI TV and on Berlusconi’s own private TV networks. I bet it will be a work of art.

Rob Teixeira August 5, 2008 8:40 AM

Interesting. It seems quite similar to what happens in Rio, where crime is now rampant and the government decided to deploy the army to “keep the peace”. The rationale was that the police was too corrupt to act, while the army, with a stronger disciplinary culture, would be able to put an end to the control of the drug lords on the Rio “favelas”.

The operation ended a couple of months ago when a soldier delivered a kid to a group of drug dealers from a rival favela as punishment for not showing respect for the military. The kid was tortured and murdered and the investigation showed the links that were already formed between the military and the several drug lords in the region.

Jacson Querubin August 5, 2008 8:40 AM


I think that this kind of government behavior it’s spreading over the world.

Here on Brazil, around 1996 began to use the army on some cities.

Today’s it’s become a procedure, and is concerning the judiciary and other institutions.

I’m concerned about this issue…

Sejanus August 5, 2008 8:42 AM

So… What are they gonna do? Those soldiers? “Look, this is mafioso, lets shoot him”?

Roberto B. August 5, 2008 8:51 AM

I was writing a thoughtful and detailed explaination, but Carlo Graziani summarized the situation perfectly.
Just in: in Italy (despite mafias) there are more “white deaths” (deaths on the job) than killings. [, in Italian]

sid77 August 5, 2008 8:57 AM

The military forces should be here to defend us Italians from something and are only allowed to arrest someone “caught in the act” (sorry, I don’t known the exact English translation of the legal terminology).
Depending on which location they’re guarding their gear can range from as simple as an ordinance suit and gun to a much more armed version sporting mimetic suit and machine gun.
Nevertheless I’m pretty uncomfortable at seeing armed soldiers patrolling the streets.

Balau August 5, 2008 9:26 AM

Italian army has nothing better to do.
Instead of doing teh nothingness, the government is sending them on the streets. This should shift the target of people’s worries from immigrants to government.

Dimitris Andrakakis August 5, 2008 9:28 AM

@Esurnir :

No they don’t. They have a much higher chance.

It’s not difficult to understand the reasons either. A policeman’s role (training, legal framework etc.) anticipates these problems, long associated with corrupt police officers. Therefore steps -however effective or not- have been taken to mitigate them.

A soldier’s role, on the other hand, is (naturally) completely different, and anticipates totally different problems. Most critically for this discussion, a soldier does not have the mindset or rules in place to prevent him from misbehaving –as in abusing power, accepting bribes etc.

I’ve been in this position myself, for a short period of time. As a soldier (military service is obligatory for Greek males) I was tasked to guard a bank while large sums of army money were transferred. Take my word for it, it was awkward to say the least; being heavily armed (standard army G3A4 7.62 rifle is too much for the city !) I was constantly thinking what I was supposed to do in case of trouble.

And I’m really glad I didn’t have to answer that.

TheDoctor August 5, 2008 9:31 AM

@bob (1st post): No, not giving them ammo was the only smart thing in this deployment.
Soldiers are trained to kill efficently, that’s their job. They are NOT trained for crowd control or selecting targets in a 99%plus civilian enviroment.
If one of these…
…let’s say not top notch trained…
National Guardsmen flips out with an assault rifle he could have killed a hefty amount of totally innocent civilians.

Not because he’s dump or a killer, but because hes the wrong person at the wrong place.

derf August 5, 2008 9:35 AM

“The new patrols of soldiers, who are not empowered to make arrests”

So it’s: “Stop! Or I’ll say ‘stop’ again!”
Or maybe: “Throw down your weapons, and prepare to be judged!”

TheDoctor August 5, 2008 9:39 AM

As Jacson Querubin points it out. This seems to be a trend:
The german home secretary in special and the german conservative party (CDU) in general are pressing to get a constitution change so they are allowed to use the military inside germany (only desaster help is currently allowed)

When they ever succeed with that you have my personal admission to worry about germany again.

flo-_ August 5, 2008 9:43 AM

@TheDoctor: That’s exactly why french army personnel deployed in sensitive public areas (see Vigipirate description above) do not have ammo “plugged” (for lack of a better word ?) on their Famas assault rifle.
They are said to carry live ammo in their pockets, but I highly doubt it’s true.

They are completely useless as is (idling all day long on railings above plateforms in my city major subway station), and would in any case be useless: you don’t deter a motivated terrorist with an assault rifle. You don’t do crowd control in an underground setting with an assault rifle.

Unix Ronin August 5, 2008 9:54 AM

Spare us from politicians who want to be Seen To Be Doing Something…. it’s almost invariably the wrong thing, and then the Right Thing never gets done, because look, we’re already Doing Something. Better by far not to do anything than to put a “solution” in place that doesn’t solve the problem.

bob August 5, 2008 10:14 AM

@TheDoctor: Sending “soldiers” to perform a “police” mission is the wrong thing to do period.

If you have to call up someone, call up MPs who are at least somewhat taught law enforcement rather than (or at least in addition to) combat. Also they would be armed with sidearms rather than M-16s, which are better in close quarters due to size as well as radically reduced lethality at extended ranges(and therefore irrelevant indoors). [same reason a handgun makes a better “home defense” weapon than a rifle]

If you anticipate a large group of terrorists trying to swarm your airport, then a reaction force of actual soldiers with squad weapons and armored vehicles might come in handy, but only in a contiguous fighting force, not scattered helplessly throughout the airport terminal.

However, UNARMED SOLDIERS is an oxymoron; having them shouldn’t even be a concept no matter WHERE they are. Better to leave them at home and do nothing than to give M-16s, M-9s, knives, uniforms, radios, trucks, hmmwvs to terrorists who will simply shoot them and take what they like.

[note – all of this assumes you actually want to SECURE an airport, rather than LOOK LIKE you’re securing an airport]

Luca August 5, 2008 10:27 AM

@bob: I’m afraid that in this case the aim is exactly to make sure the cities LOOK LIKE more secure (even the ministry of defense has publicly said something close to “people felt insecure, now seeing the soldiers on streets will make them feel more secure”)

Jeroen August 5, 2008 10:29 AM

Italians are great: they are kind enough to elect Berlusconi time and again purely for our entertainment pleasure. How anyone can take that man seriously is completely beyond me.

Carlo Graziani August 5, 2008 10:51 AM


A quotation from Alessandro Stille’s “The Sack Of Rome” is apposite:

“The Berlusconi story is one of the great political adventures of the late twentieth century, an astonishing example of what happens when media, money, and politics combine forces in a society with almost no rules…It would be easy but mistaken to dismiss Berlusconi as a uniquely Italian phenomenon, but that his story takes place in Italy is at the same time no accident. Italy has a rather remarkable record in the twentieth century as a laboratory of bad ideas that have then spread to other parts of the world. Fascism was invented in Italy, as was the Mafia, and left-wing terrorism went further in Italy than in any European country.”

This is to say, look around, I don’t care where you live, if Berlusconi-ism isn’t your present then it is very probably your future. He’s already the father figure to Putin that Mussolini was to Hitler, and the nexus of media, campaign money, and ignorant, TV-hypnotised public that he thrives in is the natural political environment in the U.S. I doubt that there is anything special about Italians, Russians, or Americans — we just got hit by the future a little earlier, that’s all.

MrUpsetter August 5, 2008 12:32 PM

I can see the pressure to ‘do something’ in light of the low-level disorder you see in places like Rome, Milan, Naples (yeah, I’ve seen it); looking through foreign eyes, I find it hard to believe that so much routine, pervasive lawbreaking is tolerated in an ostensibly civilized country — a recent trip to a small, pretty, out-of-the-way town in Northern Italy was a jawdropping experience as our travelling party were being hassled and abused by hordes of off-the-boat African hooligans selling tat, in broad daylight, down the main street of the town, with nary a cop in sight. And from experience, this was not an isolated incident. So certainly, “something needs to be done”, and the people crying racism or whatever should take the time to learn (first hand if possible) just how bad the problem of crime and low level disorder actually is.

The Vigipirate-style stunt that Berlusconi and friends is pulling here though, I’d say is theatre as well. In Paris, I’ve seen, too, the local gypsies and vagrants get away with murder right in front of heavily-armed soldiers, who don’t have the powers, the training, or even the inclination to do diddly-squat.

All this really says, as the Italians learn time and time again, is just how ineffective the political system actually is over there. This is vintage Berlusconi, who is far more concerned about the appearance of doing something than anything else. It’s origins lie in Italy’s dysfunctional politics, not action bias.

Logan71 August 5, 2008 1:40 PM

Italian people are just tired. Tired about seeing criminals doing what they want. And when they get caught, they never spend in jail all the time they should. Maybe the army is not the right answer (but the Carabinieri is an army corps as well). I just know that I see years pass by with lots of people saying “we can’t do this, we can’t do that.” Something must be done. I’d like to see less people (politicians first of all) saying what must not be done, and more people saying what can be done. Before common people decide to do “their own way”, always the worst situation.

Todd August 5, 2008 2:17 PM

“That reminds me of one of my favorite logical fallacies: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.””

You’re committing your own fallacy there; equivocation. This something might be the right thing (or maybe not).

ace August 5, 2008 2:32 PM

army cannot replace police. if corruption is high at local level they should employ federal police.

Grumpy Physicist August 5, 2008 3:08 PM

“talian people are just tired. Tired about seeing criminals doing what they want. And when they get caught, they never spend in jail all the time they should.”

Well, then they should stop voting for Berlusconi, and perhaps he’d do some jail time for his many crimes.

Man, and here I thought I’d see some new “Carabinieri Jokes” in this comment thread. Oh well.

Matt from CT August 5, 2008 3:40 PM

Rove and Bush have nothing on this
guy, and he makes Reagan look like
Jimmy Stuart.


I assume you’re talking about the actor Jimmy Stewart.

Who flew bombing missions as squadron commander in WWII, retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a Brigadier General (and as a general flew as an observer on a B-52 bombing run in Vietnam), and was a conservative Republican who campaigned for Barry Goldwater?

Not much difference between him and Reagan, except Reagan was only a military officer in the movies.

Anonymous August 5, 2008 4:03 PM

@Matt from CT:

Yes, sorry for the confusion, I did in fact mean “Jimmy Stewart”, and as you point out the reference is dumb, since what I meant to refer to was not his real-life political views (which I was not aware of, so thanks for the tidbit), but rather his on-screen persona in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”.

So “…he makes Reagan look like a sweet-natured, idealistic, generous political naif” is what I should have written. Thanks for the correction.

MrUpsetter August 5, 2008 4:22 PM

“Well, then they should stop voting for Berlusconi, and perhaps he’d do some jail time for his many crimes.”

He sets a good example, doesn’t he? As they say, the fish rots from the head.

Erik N August 5, 2008 7:42 PM

This might be an example of how making people feel safer actually make them safer:

Let’s assume that criminals on average are equally informed and intelligent as ordinary people. Let it be publicly known that the means introduced to counter a particular threat only provides illusory security: The soldiers are not empowered to act, only to watch. Publicly known does not imply known by everybody, only that the fact has been communicated to the public in widely accessible media.

We should then conclude that the real security has not changed at all.

However, if the average person, despite all facts, is likely to believe that these measures actually work, then as much as the average honest citizen will feel safer, as much will the average criminal feel a greater risk when committing particular crimes and hence seek other targets.

Thus illusory security may actually result in improved security as long as people will believe the illusion.

Of course such results only last as long as the illusion. So it is important to retreat soldiers before the illusion dawns on people. After 6 months they will call mission complete, crime has been reduced (and can prove it without fiddling the stats), soldiers will be withdrawn.

This is important, because if they stay too long people will learn that the security was an illusion and the trick won’t work next time.

Alberto Cottica August 6, 2008 8:31 AM

Thanks for your post. Two little facts could give additional perspective. One: they are deploying about 3,000 soldiers. The police force already on the ground amount to 500,000. Two: the soldiers have no experience of police work, so on their patrol duty they will be escorted… by the police.

Welcome to Italy in the times of Berlusconi.

Matt from CT August 6, 2008 12:11 PM

Or “makes Ronald Reagan look like the hero in a Frank Capra film” would work too 😉

Carlo August 7, 2008 7:19 AM

@Grumpy Physicist:
“Well, then they should stop voting for Berlusconi, and perhaps he’d do some jail time for his many crimes.”

Actually, there is no need to vote for him any longer. Before the end of this legislature the parliament has to elect the next President of the Republic. They already passed a law that gives immunity from prosecution to the Prime Minister, the President of the Republic and the Presidents of the two parliamentary chambers, it is not too hard to guess who is going to be elected.

Basically, Berlusconi just bought himself a 12-year long immunity (5 years as PM, 7 as president) and, considering his age, he is likely to die in office.

ArMyZ August 7, 2008 8:45 AM

I was used to read and comment Bruce’s cryptography posts sharing with him points of view and technical positions.
This post shocked me.
I mean, our domestic shame has become so widely known to drive Bruce to this post?
I’m really worried. We currently live a fanta-political scenario and now, we’d feel ourself more secure for the “doing something” concept of the Big B.? (hmm could seem ironic).
No. If I was paranoic I’d say that it could have militar golpe smell.
Trying to avoid paranoic status … I think it’s a very dangerous issue: soldiers just aren’t qualified and could become another source of troubles themselves.
Our cities need more police and military: increase the budgets for them and stop doing election campaign, each moment, each day, for each choice, just on our backs.

Anyway, I keep being paranoic and I don’t like that smell in the air

Pino August 8, 2008 3:00 AM

Hi, I’m a former italian soldier. I think it’s a good thing that my ex-colleagues are now in the streets, instead to be in barracks doing nothing (it happened frequently).
Italian people like to see some soldier in the streets: they understand that is not war or golpe, but it’s just some more safety.

O.B. August 8, 2008 10:49 AM

the dear old question about the difference beetween “to feel” and “to be”… between “to deceive” and “to act”.

Dog August 11, 2008 2:15 AM

Better have national army employed in public security than private guards as more and more often happens in many countries – it reminds to me too much the Dark Ages, with merchants and landlords imposing their custom laws with private force.

And I don’t think it’s a bad idea – just to “do something, and this is something”, there are many public services that requires a bulk of people (patroling, protecting buildings etc) which are best fit for army, and other ones that requires investigation that are best fit for few specifically trained man from police, Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza (by the way, both belong to army too).

If you use army where the duty is fit at best for army, you can recover police agents for duties they can fullfill at best.

And, by the way, Italy employed army in the same way (patrolling and protect buildings to free police units for more specific tasks) with success, from 1992 to 1998 – operation Vespri Siciliani.

And for those who see a link between use of army alongside police with right wing politics, operation Vespri Siciliani lived 2 years under center/left governaments (Ciampi/Amato), 2 years under right wing governaments (Dini/Berlusconi) and last 2 years under left wing governaments (Amato/D’Alema/Prodi):

Be sure that if the operation is successfull and cost effective in recovering police officers for mosre specific tasks, next governaments will continue it as Vespri Siciliani.

Peppino August 20, 2008 9:02 AM

I think that the essence of Berlusconism can be understood reading some of the comments above, written by Italians stating that crime is rampant in Italy. In fact statistics say exactly the opposite, that crime is almost stationary, actually slowly decreasing. However, the power of the media has created the widespread feeling that the situation is collapsing. So, people are happy when they see that the government is “doing something” (whatever the actual effectiveness). Controlling the media means controlling the minds of millions of people. From this, all the rest follows.

Marco August 25, 2008 5:58 AM

I am sorry I am posting this comment so late, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to dedicate much time to this blog lately.
I would like to highlight the fact that 3.000 soldiers being employed in the whole country doesn’t make the cities look like occupied by the army… actually, it is extremely rare to see soldiers around, since they are all concentrated in big (by “big” I mean 10-15 people) groups in few places. Making their use even less effective. Of course, if you watch people intwerviewed in TV will all say how much more secure they feel with the army around, but that is most likely because only people who say what Berlusconi wants will have a chance to speak on tv.
IMHO the army is being used because investing 100 million$ for the police, although being more effective, wouldn’t have got a place on any newspaper, or international blog, passing undetected. And since in our era only what is shown really happens, the choice was made towards something more visible.
Anyways, Italy doesn’t need more security, only needs people to realize that we are secure enough already; much more secure than other civilized countries such as the USA, for example.
As last thing: Guardia di Finanza is NOT part of the army, but it is a police force specialized in ecnomical crimes; you will not see any agent of Guardia di Finanza patrolling your street, altought they have the power to arrest criminals.

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