At almost the exact time that Italy’s new government, led by the young and untried Enrico Letta, was being sworn in at the Quirinale Palace, a man walked across the downtown square in front of the cabinet offices and shot and injured two carabinieri at point blank range.
The man was quickly overpowered, brought to the ground and transported off the scene. A 20-minute walk away the government concluded its swearing-in ceremony and got down to work.
The new minister for the interior, Angelo Alfano, was quickly able to reassure everyone that this was the work of an isolated “squilibrato” (unhinged) operator. The new minister of defence went off to visit the two injured carabinieri in hospital and on the other side of Rome Pope Francis was able to carry on with a special Mass, although initial reporting thought that this might be delayed too.
Within the hour there was a feeling of relief that this was not another Boston – that this was not a terrorist attack.
What transpired instead was that Luigi Preiti, the man who had walked calmly in front of Palazzo Chigi to shoot two carabinieri in the centre of Rome, was not a squilibrato but a man who was out of work, had broken up with his wife and returned home to his parents in Calabria. He was not unhinged but he was desperate enough to take aim at the forces of law and order in the political heart of Rome.
The level of desperation up and down Italy has been on the increase for months – partly a symptom of voters' impatience with political bungling made evident by the results of the general elections at the end of February, but also a reflection of acute economic stress.
Manufacturing has slowed, construction has ground to a halt, the service sector is short of cash and banks are charging high rates of interest. The savings of Italians, which have traditionally been invested in their homes, are being eroded and the jobs market is hopeless, especially for the young.
One of the first tasks for Letta’s new-look, pared-down government, with its younger politicians and its inclusion of more women in its ranks, will be to find a rapid cure for the rising desperation and disaffection.