The modern history of the infamous column

The modern history of the infamous column

Four hundred years separate us from that reprehensible process described by Alessandro Manzoni in a Milan ravaged by the plague, where the hunt for “untori” (supposed spreaders of the disease) seemed to be the only solution to the epidemic. Four centuries that, in the light of the modern “inquisition,” appear to have taught us nothing. So much so that with modern-day Caterina Rosa and other “informers” – we could also call them “accusers” – one could write 365 stories of infamy, one for each day of the year, to illustrate how a wrongly chosen or, worse, misinterpreted word can determine a person’s fate, condemn their life, their work, or a personal relationship. Not to mention a denunciation, or rather, spying during the time of the Coronavirus.

The “History of the infamous column” is well known to those who have read “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed) at least once. It’s an appendix to Manzoni’s great novel that, due to a series of dynamics, resembles our current health emergency and, above all, the social response given by a population terrified and oppressed by the specter of an infection that spares no one. In fact, faced with that plague that was consuming the population while medicine groped in the dark, the reprehensible hunt for “untori” began. A scapegoat to blame for all the evil and every fault of the contagion, almost as if to provide the people with a tool to alleviate suffering and quell fears. It was the baseless suspicion of a commoner, transformed into a vile lie, that sentenced two innocent people to death with the accusation of spreading the plague. The two poor wretches, the barber Gian Giacomo Mora and the Health Commissioner Guglielmo Piazza, were tortured for days with the wheel and finally executed, without guilt and without a shred of evidence. To conclude this vile act, a column was erected on the ruins of the barber’s house/shop with a description of the inflicted punishments. A warning to potential “untori.” It would take 150 years before that artifact was transformed into a monument against the judges who committed a grave and unspeakable injustice.

How many years will it take, instead, to realize the extent of our turpitude during the Coronavirus emergency? Because it’s truly disconcerting how this conspiracy against alleged “untori” has survived through the centuries to this day. “People policing people,” as the Americans say. Indeed, let’s be clear, we have been quite malicious during this emergency.

“3 out of 4 Italians are in favor of reporting neighbors who violate the DCPM rules and having them thrown in jail. Or even having them undergo a forced psychiatric evaluation if they lose control after being cooped up at home for days on end,” states a survey by Coldiretti/Ixé. It’s a troubling figure that recalls the attitude of informers in the Nazi-fascist or Bolshevik communist periods, despite there being – deep down, but very deep down – a certain level of public accountability.

In hindsight, are we sure we behaved correctly in reporting and/or accusing people at random? Or in attacking anyone who tried to provide alternative (and often more reliable) information than the official narrative?

Our infamous column, the warning for potential “untori,” has been represented by the most crude and unthinking social media witch hunts that endangered the reputation of good people, exceptional doctors, and even journalists. It’s also represented by the mountain of fines imposed on citizens who were not necessarily reckless but rather victims of a system that, instead of helping people save themselves and protect themselves, tried to drown them in the very infection they were meant to guard against.

There are numerous stories recounted by the media: from the elderly person fined for purchasing “only” a bottle of wine, to the girl fined while going to the doctor accompanied by her mother, to parents who “shockingly together” take their daughter for a leukemia checkup, to a doctor going to the pharmacy to buy medication for a patient, to funerals interrupted by the local sheriff. As if the pain were not enough. And not to mention the witch hunt against solitary runners, which I’ll refrain from commenting on!

Surrounded, pointed at, fined, reported, ridiculed – millions of innocent citizens were treated as dangerous criminals, a situation that contradicts the leniency shown toward well-known criminals. Two different standards. Restrictions on fundamental rights, coercive measures not always in line with the general principles of the legal system, all to protect our health. But what about mental health? And has anyone considered the money taken from citizens, already struggling due to halted commercial activities?

It’s interesting to note that if in Manzoni’s time, identifying the culprits among the alleged “untori” somehow helped quell popular revolts, today, using the same method, attention is diverted away from a system ill-equipped to provide adequate answers to citizens and lacking not only in treatment tools (with the exception of an extraordinary army of doctors and healthcare personnel) but also an efficient protocol to safeguard the health of individuals, including those most at risk such as disabled patients and those with debilitating conditions.

If the hunt for the plague “untore” leveraged popular ignorance at the time, the hunt for the Coronavirus “untore” has found fertile ground in the abundance of news and fake news and on the fears bouncing from person to person, from social platform to social platform, from reprehensible newspaper headlines that, day after day, week after week, turned us into rabid dogs, ready to bite anyone out of fatigue, powerlessness, fear, but also a subtle social envy that has settled in our communities in recent years.

Everyone against everyone.

But where does common sense end, and arrogance, or rather, malice, begin? And when is the line crossed? We may never know, or maybe we will, 150 years from now when we rewrite our own infamous column. In the meantime, now, as the lockdown approaches its final act, and in anticipation of savoring the joy of a walk in a park or a stroll along the promenade without necessarily being pursued by helicopters and sheriffs, we lick our wounds like beaten dogs, well aware that the return to normalcy will be haunted by the ghosts of a quarantine we have not yet digested. The human, economic, and psychological costs that will follow are incalculable.

by Federico Di Mattia