Rome, Fearful City

Rome's Piazza di Spagna is famous as a meeting place for tourists and Italians alike, a place to see and be seen. But this week, it became a symbol of all that is happening in and to America and the perceived danger that faces not only Americans but their allies.

Metal detectors were installed inside the American Express office just off the piazza. Armed police in flak jackets blended in with tourists who mingled outside its doors. Across the piazza, a McDonald's restaurant buzzed with customers, but, according to the manager, there was an increase in takeout meals versus those wanting to while away a mealtime in a purely American establishment. This week, the U.S. Embassy sent out a communique to all Americans living in Italy: "The State Department has received information that symbols of American capitalism in Italy may be targeted for attack in October," it stated. "American citizens are also urged to avoid contact with any suspicious, unfamiliar objects and people."

That warning was unnerving for Americans on Italian soil. But the Italians are the ones who took it to heart. A not-so-subtle panic has crept over Italian cities, mainly in Rome, where symbolic monuments of all genres abound, and in Milan, which is home to nearly 50 American companies. In Rome, patrons of coffee bars gave predictions of when the military war will start and what Italian monument would be the easiest to attack. "The Colosseum tops the list," according to Luciano, who owns a coffee bar in Trastevere in Rome. "No," countered a customer sipping a cappuccino. "St. Peter's will be hit first." Luciano asks me, the only American in the group, what I think. "The embassy?" I offer, only to be shushed by the Italians as "too obvious a choice."

These comments have replaced the usual banter about soccer standings, renovation projects gone awry and the daily speculation about the prime minister's real motives behind legislation currently being passed. Outside the coffee bar, nervous old ladies who vividly remember World War II rush by with canned goods and six-packs of bottled water as they stock up in preparation for what they remember about war. "Be prepared to be in your house for days at a time," warned Assunta, who owns a small grocery store beside Luciano's coffee bar. "Canned tuna, pasta, tomatoes, water ... you can live a long time on just that." Meanwhile Banca Commerciale Italiana reported an increase in cash withdrawals, and local delivery personnel say they can't keep up with the demand for bottled water. These aren't people planning for a biological war; these are people readying themselves for a "real" war.

The threat of a biological attack exists, too, but only as an afterthought to the current frenzy. An announcement by the health minister late in the week set off a new wave of panic. While many Americans with access to international television have already been advised about the pros and cons of gas masks and how to seal off a room from bad germs, Italians have taken the news of a "new kind of war" hard. "I wouldn't even know what to do," said 82-year-old Maria Paola, who lives in a convent nursing home in the city center. "I guess I'd just give in and figure it is my time to go." She's not alone. In Luciano's coffee bar, a man who wouldn't give his name said he's ready for a biological war: "I've got a gun [which is illegal in Italy], and if there is a biological attack, I'll just shoot myself."

The panic the Italians are feeling is warranted. Not only is the pope a known target of Osama bin Laden, based on information released after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, but Italy is in a geographic position that makes it vulnerable to retaliation, according to the Ministry of Defense. There are a half dozen NATO airbases in the country staffed with American military personnel and aircraft that are high on the list of potential targets. The Italian government this week quickly issued Italian license plates to American military personnel to make their vehicles less conspicuous. And there have been threats against American targets in the past year. Last January the U.S. Embassy quickly closed for three days following a warning that it was the target of planned attacks. This week, the embassy confirmed that their intelligence pointed to that attack being tied to Islamic extremists.

More nerve-wracking for Italians, though, is the recent gaffe by their prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Last week, the media mogul turned politician described Western society as superior to Islam, and while he later apologized and promised he had been misunderstood, many Italian commentators--professional and armchair alike--likened the comment to painting a big red target on the city of Rome. Even so, Interior Minister Claudio Scajola told reporters that "We have no information about possible terrorist attacks in our country." And then he hesitantly added, "But of course that could change in five minutes ..."

All government agencies are working together to try to quell fears. Scajola tries to be comforting. "We're keeping under observation all possible objectives of sick minds who want to carry out terrorist attacks," he said, "but I repeat that at the moment there is no reason for particular alarm." Each week, though, new developments make Italians more edgy. Spending is down, consumer confidence is lagging, and there is an overall feeling of doom and gloom. Italians are generally easily excitable, as anyone who has ever lived in this country knows firsthand, but this is a new kind of panic and one that is particularly contagious.