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Though He's Guilty, the Costa Concordia's Captain Walks Free for Now

02/16/2015 01:56 EST | Updated 04/17/2015 05:59 EDT
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The operative word is vergognoso -- shameful -- and my Italian friends have been using it repeatedly since the verdict in Francesco Schettino's trial was issued earlier this week in Grosseto, Italy.

Schettino was the captain of the Costa Concordia, which struck rocks off the island of Giglio in January, 2012, resulting in 31 deaths, and injuries for many others. It took two years for engineers to raise the ship upright and nearly another year thereafter for it to be towed to the port of Genoa for dismantling.

Schettino was sentenced to 16 years -- 10 for manslaughter, five for causing a maritime disaster, one for abandoning his passengers. The last time I heard vergognoso used this much was when Schettino abandoned ship, in January 2012 (and then when Italy's national soccer team failed to get past the group stage in the 2014 World Cup). While many feel the sentence itself is non coraggioso -- tentative -- what they find truly shameful is that as long as his sentence is under appeal, Schettino will not go to prison.

Noteworthy (and a tad absurd), too, is that another part of his sentence is a five-year ban on captaining a ship. In other words, he could -- in theory -- take command of a ship while his sentence is still under appeal. Italian legal cases can take years and even decades to fully unfold (see: Knox: Amanda), though perhaps public outrage over this one won't allow that to happen.

There is simultaneously anger and acceptance in Italy about the failures of the justice system and the machinations that allow certain people to get away with much while others pay the price. Italians get mad about it, but also shrug and say, this is how it is. The idea of the furbo, the shrewd or sly one who gets around the rules, is embedded in the culture (see the excellent Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, by Tim Parks, for more on this concept) as is -- in a more powerful way than in Canada or the United States -- the power of nepotism and family connections.

As reported in the Huffington Post shortly after the Concordia disaster:

The real mystery is how someone as incompetent as Captain Francesco Schettino, got the job in the first place. To solve the mystery is to understand how the Italian economy works, or doesn't in this case. It's not one based principally on meritocracy. When looking for work, family connections and status are more important than competence, skill, and education.

The Concordia saga touches a nerve with Italians, likely because it contains every negative Italian stereotype. Consider that it all started when the married Schettino, apparently showing off for a girl (not his wife), ignored the rules and took the ship off course. As a result, the ship hit rocks and was ripped open, causing Schettino to...wait an hour to issue an abandon ship order. Wait, what? Yes, that's right. He waited an hour, possibly hoping the situation was not as bad as it was and that his culpability wouldn't be discovered. Once the order was issued he, as per the order, abandoned ship, forgetting what all five-year-olds know: the Captain stays till all passengers are safe or dead. And unless we believe his story about "falling into" one of the lifeboats, he proceeded to lie about running away. And finally, once on shore, the first call this grown man made was to his mother.

In Italy, the matter of running away, of abandoning ship, is a touchy one. Seventy years have passed since the end of World War II, but it looms impressively. According to an article in the New York Times:

Some commentators have drawn analogies with other ignominious episodes from Italy's past, like the escape from Rome of the royal family and the prime minister after Sept. 8, 1943, when a new government announced Italy's breach with her Axis partner and the signing of an armistice with the Allies -- often described as a classic moment of abandoning a sinking ship.

"The notion of running away is part of our history, and nails the Italian character," Mr. Merlo said, noting that cowardice was a theme in many great films of Italy's neorealist tradition.

In fact, it is likely that had Schettino not, er, fallen into a lifeboat, there would be a good deal less public hostility toward him. And make no mistake, the hostility exists. A La Sapienza University professor who invited Schettino to speak to one of his classes has been suspended for two months without pay.

Still, no one thinks Schettino meant to endanger or end the lives of his passengers and Italians can be a forgiving lot (see Berlusconi: Silvio). It's the cowardice and subsequent whining that has turned the captain's name into a noun, something that is rarely enviable. In Italy, I have heard people use the phrase sembra uno schettino -- "he seems like a schettino" -- to describe someone and it isn't meant as something positive. It isn't as bad as being called a quisling, of course, but even out of prison, he's a punchline.

Schettino announced in late January that he wouldn't run away from justice, and I wish I had a euro for every time I heard one of my Italian friends say: of course, he won't run away. He'll just accidentally fall into a lifeboat.

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