Supreme Kidnap

James Fox

  • Fortune’s Hostages by Caroline Moorehead
    Hamish Hamilton, 256 pp, £8.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 241 10320 7

The readers of the Italian weekly L’Espresso (swaying in the breeze like a field of ripe corn) were treated, in their issue of 20 January, to a new form of journalistic entertainment – a media package for the Eighties. Wrapped into the cellophane cover was a gramophone record, featuring a conversation between a member of the Red Brigades and Aldo Moro’s daughter, in which she is given one last chance for her father’s release. This is followed by another conversation – the last in a series of calls from another of Moro’s captors, ‘Professor Niccolai’, telling Moro’s best friend, on the day he was killed, where to pick up the corpse. You hear the friend sobbing and making great efforts to speak. He is told that Moro’s last wish was that he take the news to Moro’s family. ‘I can’t,’ he says. ‘You can’t,’ says Niccolai, as if discussing a grocery delivery. His bureaucratic style creates a repugnant sense of cruelty and inhumanity as he gives directions: first left, second right, the body is in the boot. ‘Va bene?’

In Moro’s daughter’s case, the call – also the last she will get – comes from a public booth in Rome’s Termini station. She must understand that there is now no more time: the decision has just been taken to kill her father. There must be some political intervention. ‘It is a political problem,’ says the caller. The caller seems anxious, breathing rapidly and talking fast. Often their two voices burst out simultaneously, followed by silences. At other times Moro’s daughter simply says: ‘Yes.’ The caller almost seems to be pleading with her to provide a way out of the killing, as if suddenly shocked by the majority decision of his comrades. (According to Ms Moorehead, Moro drowned in his own blood: the bullets were cleverly aimed in a neat circle; none of them penetrated his heart.) He seems not to believe that the despised, corrupt, compromising Christian Democrats are really going to refuse to deal. By so doing – as the elections were to prove – they would win on points. (The subsequent promise of great revelations from the Red Brigades’ interrogations of Moro has always seemed like an attempt to compensate for that crucial miscalculation. The revelations never materialised.)

It’s not just a souvenir of an epic of moral torture that L’Espresso is offering its readers, however. In a way, it’s more sinister. After each recording there are voice samples. First of Toni Negri, the University of Padua professor – a distinguished academic – who is charged with Moro’s kidnapping, with masterminding the Red Brigades, and with making that call to Moro’s daughter, and secondly of Giuseppe Nicotri, charged as an accomplice. Much of the prosecution case in the forthcoming trial of Italy v. Negri will depend on these voice comparisons.

But the voices of Negri and Nicotri are carefully edited extracts from the tapes of the police interrogations recently carried out in Roman prisons where the two men are being held. What is astonishing is that readers are in possession, some weeks in advance, of the crucial prosecution evidence, wrapped in cellophane. For the rest of the state’s evidence, even though the trial is to be held behind closed doors, they have only to read the rest of the Italian press, where depositions from prosecution witnesses, including star ‘supergrasses’, are published verbatim, almost daily. Trial by gramophone, as after-dinner entertainment, is a new development in criminal justice. Possibly it is preferable to secret trials. But in this case the two go together. The whole run-up to the Negri trial touches on an area that Ms Moorehead can only glance over, in a world-wide survey: it reflects the same kind of corruption and institutional rot for which, among other things, Moro found himself on ‘trial’ in his Red Brigades prison. Terrorism and kidnapping take root only under certain economic and social conditions. Like West Germany, Italy has resorted to the suspension of civil liberties to deal with urban terrorism – which is just what the Red Brigades would expect.

The Espresso package brings home, with sickening force, the moral torture and brutality involved in the crime of kidnapping. Moro was, of course, the supreme political kidnap. That photograph of him sitting crumpled and pathetic in front of the Red Brigades flag – it’s on the cover of Ms Moorehead’s book – was a stunning propaganda success, driving home the lesson of the potency of the urban terrorist and the vulnerability of the state. (Eighty per cent of all kidnappings succeed.) As the business dragged on, with the almost daily communiqués from Moro, it became a morbid parody of Italian politics.

‘If Moro’s kidnapping is remarkable for anything,’ writes Ms Moorehead,

it is not for the revelation of party scandals nor the process of a government faced with the loss of a leader, but for the letters that Moro wrote. He alone wrote between fifty and seventy during the 54 days of his captivity, and many were published in Italian newspapers. Books were written, and books about the letters. Moro’s kidnapping was a literary affair.

Moro, the great political compromiser, the master of phrases like ‘convergenze parallele’, who was on the verge of a deal with the Communist Party, was now using these skills to try and obtain his release. ‘The sacrifice of innocents in the name of an abstract principle ... is inadmissible,’ etc. As Moorehead points out, he could be forgiven for assuming that ‘in this, as in everything else, the Italian government was flexible.’ In fact, they had never been more united or determined. The high point of the ‘historic compromise’ was the agreement not to make a deal for Moro’s life.

It might have worked. There can be no binding agreement, internationally or domestically, that says human life is always expendable in cases of political kidnapping, and there are no fixed rules. (In ransom cases, the money will, of course, always be handed over.) In West Germany, when Count von Spreti, their ambassador to Guatemala, was kidnapped and the Guatemalan government refused to deal, Herr Scheel accused them of ‘abetting murder’. In 1975, when Peter Lorenz was taken by the Baader Meinhof, Schmidt agreed to every demand. But in that same year, when the Baader gang took the German Ambassador in Stockholm, Schmidt would not deal. He called it the ‘ad hoc’ line.

Ms Moorehead has done a highly efficient job, pulling together a vast amount of information and ordering it into digestible prose. Her skills as a journalist are well-established in the Times, where she has been a columnist. But this book isn’t trying to produce fresh insights into any of the particular incidents. There are no terrorist memoirs, or insider details of the deliberations of politicians; and the captives’ recollections are on the whole disappointing. This is a pity: but that sort of book usually requires expensive investigative journalism, and Ms Moorehead has had to cover a lot of ground with speed. Sir Robert Mark has praised Fortune’s Hostages as a useful handbook: ‘required reading,’ he says, ‘in the unlikely and unhappy event that kidnapping here increased dramatically.’

In the meantime, it is interesting to discover, for example, the scale on which the business of kidnapping has taken place in the rest of the world: in the last decade (between 1970 and 1977) guerrilla movements kidnapped nearly four hundred people, and the total ransom money collected in Italy in the same period came to £88 million, from 334 people. The kidnapping stories in this book illuminate the unbelievable drama of Italian politics; they also illuminate the way kidnapping has altered the complexion of several South American states, and the way it has threatened our own democratic freedoms in Europe. Above all, we are made conscious of its astonishing success. Ms Moorehead obviously knows Italy well and comes to life on location in Sardinia, where invasions, repressions, and the political and economic abandonment suffered by its population, have turned them in to the most cunning, callous and experienced of all kidnappers. So deprived are the Sardinian shepherds that they are assumed to be receiving if found with a 10,000 lire note. After a couple of years of drought in the Barbargia mountains, kidnapping is apparently the only guarantee of survival. Indeed, it is considered an honourable profession. It emerges from a long Mediterranean tradition – four centuries of ransom and kidnapping on a massive scale, a two-way trade between Muslims and Christians, while the Mediterranean was apparently ungovernable. It lasted well into the 19th century. The experience of Candide was a reality for many unlucky travellers in those parts.

The question of how one would react under the moral violence of captivity touches off deep subconscious fears, to judge by the dreams I had while reading the book. For the kidnap victim, fenced into a small cage with chicken wire, hungry, filthy, cold and abused, under the threat of execution (but rarely physically tortured), the terror and panic and anxiety last for days, weeks, months. Some are lucky enough to be given tranquillisers. Others get over their fear by forming a dependence on, or a romantic relationship with, their captors. The idea, of course, is to apply the concentration-camp rule: if you become humble, subservient and favour-seeking, lose your dignity and become ridiculous, your chances of survival are narrowed. Geoffrey Jackson, the British diplomat held by the Tupamaros, put up a superb display of British stoicism, for which he was knighted. He insisted on being called ‘Jackson’ (‘Not cell no 10’), made his captors apologise for insulting the Queen, refused to drink wine with them, did his Canadian Air Force exercises, and meticulously planned every moment of his day.

Abraham Guillen, who may be thought the main exponent of the theory of urban guerrilla warfare in Latin America – he died in 1969 – believed that it would lead to repression and dictatorships, which would then, be overthrown by an armed alliance of peasants and workers. Such an alliance never came about: the urban guerrillas lost the sympathy of the masses because of their increasingly violent methods; at the same time, the police became more effectively repressive. Then, in 1969, Renato Curcio, an early Red Brigades strategist, wrote: ‘The battles for the masses, the great strikes, the street demonstrations, have had their day. To break the system we must turn to armed warfare, to strike at the heart of the state.’ So far, as Ms Moorehead points out, it has not proved a way of seizing power, and in the meantime the real victim, wherever you look, has been the democratic rule of law. President Bordaberry of Uruguay ‘asked the army to crush’ the Tupamaros – and in seven months they did so. But seven months after that the army put him out of office altogether, and took over power themselves.

In Argentina, Moorehead reports, 15,000 people have disappeared since the military coup of March 1976. By weakening near-democratic regimes, the urban guerrillas paved the way in South America for ‘dictatorships which did not hesitate to murder, torture, even kidnap’. In America and Europe, new groups of highly-trained police units have been created with names like SWAT, GS9, Special Patrol Group, and the police have been armed with new powers of arrest and detention. After one Baader Meinhof incident in West Germany, Moorehead explains: ‘The Christian Democrats immediately proposed outlawing three splinter communist parties and compiled a list of “radical” quotations from people like Heinrich Böll and Gunter Grass, whom they accused of encouraging the violence by standing out against authority.’ Ms Moorehead concludes that the ‘conditions of poverty, oppression and alienation that caused the terrorists to kidnap, assassinate and bomb have not improved; indeed they have probably worsened, but then so, it appears, have the prospects for conducting a successful guerrilla war.’ She quotes Walter Laqueur:

Guerrilla war may not entirely disappear ... but it is on the decline, together with its traditional foes – colonialism on the one hand, and liberal democracy on the other. Thus the function of guerrilla movements is reverting to what it originally was – that of paving the way for, and supporting the regular army ... The retreat into urban terror, noisy, but politically ineffective, is not a new departure but, on the contrary, the end of an era.