squandering freedom one step at a time

This week, the Associated Press reports that Italy has begun fingerprinting tens of thousands of Roma living in semi-nomadic camps around the country.

This week, the Associated Press reports that Italy has begun fingerprinting tens of thousands of Roma living in semi-nomadic camps around the country.

The Roma, also known as Gypsies, live in more than 700 makeshift camps, mainly centered around Italy’s largest cities. Though many live in Italy legally, authorities believe the camps harbour a large number of illegal immigrants.

The so-called “census” is promoted as part of a crack-down on street crime.

Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government blames a wave of petty crime on what it calls a “Roma emergency.”

In addition to fingerprinting and checking documents, there’s evidence that census-takers are also recording respondents’ religion and country of origin.

Human rights activists in Italy and elsewhere have condemned the Roma census. While most are careful not to leap to harsh words like “racist” or “fascist”, preferring softer terms such as “discriminatory,” groups from Amnesty International to the United Nations decry the practice of singling out a particular racial group to be registered and fingerprinted.

The census will no doubt find favour with certain elements of the Italian population, most especially those who consider themselves victims of Roma crime.

According to the AP report, a camp in Naples “had to be evacuated in May after attackers set huts on fire and angry residents in neighbouring areas protested against the alleged attempt by a Gypsy woman to kidnap a baby.”

Quite probably statistics would reveal that people from the Roma camps are disproportionately responsible for petty crime in Italy.

People who live in shanty-camps, who are discriminated against in the job-market and distrusted on the streets, are generally more likely to pick pockets and shoplift than those with jobs and homes.

This is the cycle of discrimination that has helped to marginalize the Roma for thousands of years.

Hated, distrusted, shifted from country to country, town to town, often deprived of the ability to work, some are drawn or driven to the crimes and excesses of poverty, and for this all are hated, distrusted, and driven out.

It’s hard to miss the sinister implications of such a program in a country that two generations ago rounded up Roma along with Jews, homosexuals, and suspected Communists and shipped them to Nazi death camps by the thousands.

But is Italy very far out of step with the rest of the world?

Last month, the Globe and Mail reported that South Africans were rioting against labourers from other African countries, tearing down their  shanty camps and driving them out.

In France last year, black immigrants rioted against a ghetto system clearly designed to keep them isolated from the mainstream community.

In North America, post-9/11 fears have resulted in discrimination against people of Middle Eastern origin ranging from petty inconveniences at airports to summary arrest, detention, and “rendition” into the hands of torturers, under secretive laws that few citizens understand or, in Canada’s case, are even aware of.

Now the Washington Post reports that the US Department of Justice is developing a computerized profiling system to catch “potential terrorists” before they act.

To be administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the system will use race as one of its strongest determining factors.

If you are a white-skinned fifth-generation Texan, you may take flight training, purchase automatic weapons, visit internet hate sites, fly to Saudi Arabia, and own all the fertilizer and diesel your heart desires and it is unlikely the so-called System To Assess Risk will identify you as a potential terrorist.

Racial profiling isn’t restricted to fascist states, or to states that were fascist 60 years ago.

It’s all too easy to stir up fears against a group that’s already marginalized and poor, or to identify one race as the enemy – let’s not forget what happened to North Americans of Japanese origin at the same time the Nazis were slaughtering Gypsies and Jews.

The Roma census is a warning to the world, not that Europe is about to resound once more to the sound of jackboots and the rumble of death trains, but that we can all fall prey to fear and distrust of strangers in our midst.

Fail to guard against the natural human tendency to demonize the outcast, and we risk squandering hard-won rights and freedoms, one small step at a time.

 Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.