A History of My Lifetime | 1993: Violence and Consequence

On the first of January another wall came down. This was not, as had been the case with the Berlin wall a few years before, a physical barrier. Instead it was a metaphorical one. It was a trade barrier and its removal was the birth of the thing we call the European Single Market. There had been a customs union in place since sixty eight but in eighty six a deadline, ratified within the Single European Act, was delivered. At the end of ninety two that deadline passed and Europe went forward into ninety three a very different place. This was because the removal of the trade barrier and creation of the Single Market did not just allow the free movement of goods and physical products, but also allowed for free movement of currency, of capital, and more importantly the free movement of people and services. It brought, to a certain extent, the borders of Europe crashing down. Now a man could go anywhere within the soon to be European Union. He could work and live wherever he wanted, from Cape St Vincent to Cape Wrath. He could offer his services, be they medical or mechanical, anywhere.

At the end of the year NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, would be signed by President Clinton. The London Convention banned the dumping of Nuclear Waste at sea. The Oslo I accord saw the placement of a framework that could have lead to an end for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It even saw Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands when they met in Washington D.C. The world was suddenly a much freer, slightly brighter place. Or at least, that was the theory.

The dawning of a pan-European utopia and a better world looked to be in sight. However. Not all was well. Ninety three would turn out to be a year of violence and consequence.

In Sicily a net was closing in around the Cosa Nostra, around the Mafia. Salvatore Riina, head of the Mafia, a native of Corleone and also known as ‘the Beast,’ was arrested in Palermo. Fearing for his life after taking a mistress, one of his subordinates (Balduccio Di Magio) turned police informant. Riina had been a monster, a ruthless killer who ruled Sicily with an iron grip and who was responsible for the deaths of some two hundred people, including women and children. The previous year he’d orchestrated the deaths of two public prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and brought serious public outrage down upon himself and the Sicilian Mafia. It led to a crackdown by the authorities, many of whom had previously given the Mafia an easy ride. Already many of the criminal fraternity had been convicted in the Maxi Trials of the eighties, some three hundred and sixty of them, most in absentia, including Riina, and the murders of Falcone and Borsellino were part of a push by the Mafia to stop those convictions being upheld.

We know little of Riina’s personality but he was not a Mafioso in the style of the Hollywood movies. He was not slick, charming or in any way likable. He was a violent killer, a hypocrite who gave false-emotional eulogies at the funerals of his victims. He was a criminal, a dangerous man and one who quite clearly didn’t care who he hurt in order to get his own way.

His arrest would have brutal consequences for the Sicilian and Italian people, consequences that may have been on Riina’s orders. The innocent would suffer. When they saw the game was up many former gang members began to give evidence and in retaliation the organisation began to murder close relatives of those informants. They also began a terrorism campaign on the Italian mainland, the most serious incident being a bombing on the Via dei Georgiofili in Florence on the twenty seventh of May. Five people were killed, one of whom was a girl not even two months old, and almost fifty people were wounded. More bombings were to follow, in Rome and in Milan, and attacks were made against priests and the Catholic Church for what the Mafia believed was a betrayal, for speaking out and condemning them.

It was, ultimately, the cry of a dying animal but the Mafia would take many years to properly die. Indeed, it remains an ugly presence on the streets of Palermo to this day. Whilst they are nowhere near as powerful as they were back before the fall of Riina in ninety three, there are still instances of protection rackets and murders corruption.

The decline of the Mafia, who controlled much of the European drug traffic, also left a gap which was filled by other organisations. Most prominent amongst these were the Ndrangheta of Calabria, who are now said to be one of the most powerful crime syndicates in the world. They are now the biggest importers of cocaine into Europe and far more international than the Cosa Nostra ever were.

Bettino Craxi (Courtesy of Il Giornale)

Corruption and crime went right to the heart of Italy in ninety three, even to the government itself. Italy was governed by a corrupt system that was dubbed Tangentopoli. This had first been uncovered in ninety two and had lead to the arrest of Italian Socialist Party member Mario Chiesa for accepting bribes. Distanced by the party, Chiesa (In a similar incident to what happened with Di Maggio in Sicily) revealed that corruption was rife in Italian politics. Bettino Craxi, leader of the socialist party and who had called Chiesa a villain, was himself accused of corruption and resigned as a result. He later admitted that his party had received ninety three million dollars worth of illegal money. By March the flood of accusations had become a tidal wave, with judges, politicians and officials of all sorts being accused, arrested, indicted or convicted. Gabriele Cagliari, the president of Eni, a nationalised oil and gas company, was arrested for embezzlement and committed suicide whilst in prison.

The Italian political system changed dramatically as a result. Soon almost all of the major parties had been disbanded or renamed- Only the Italian Republican party now remains from that time. The wave of public outrage that greeted these corruption charges significantly contributed to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi the following year. In a horrifying twist, Berlusconi was, himself, part of the corruption. Berlusconi’s family businesses were under investigation and he almost immediately used his powers to create a law that protected himself and his business from the charges. He would continue in this manner throughout his seventeen years in office.

It was not just in Italy that terrible things were happening, however. In ninety three the world, as a whole, was an unsettling and unpleasant place to be. It wasn’t just because of political corruption or organised crime either, it was also reflected in regular society, where now it was becoming abundantly clear that things were failing.

Nowhere was this failing better emphasised than in the UK. James Bulger from Kirkby was only a month shy of his third birthday when he was abducted from the New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle. He was taken two and a half miles away to Walton where, two days later, his body was discovered. He had been horrifically beaten and tortured. Afterwards, his body was placed on the railway line in an attempt to make his death look like an accident. According to the case pathologist he had suffered no less than forty two injuries. It was one of the most perverted and brutal crimes to ever take place on British soil and to read the full details of the atrocity is, even for those of us with a strong stomach, to read something truly sickening.

The New Strand Shopping Centre (Courtesy of the Liverpool Echo)

The most shocking and most horrific part about all this is that the killer was not some middle aged man, not the type of person one usually expects in cases such as these. It was, in fact, a crime perpetrated by two ten year old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Bulger was, alas, not their first intended victim for earlier in the day they had attempted to lure another child away from the New Strand Shopping Centre, only to be stopped by that child’s parent. What they did was intentional, pre-meditated. They planned all along to take a child, and they didn’t care who it was. Any child could have become their unfortunate victim that day and, sadly, it was James Bulger.

But why did they do it? What would drive two ten year old boys to commit such acts of unspeakable barbarity? In the years sense much of the debate has centred on the rights of the killers; Was it right to name them? Was it right to give them an adult trial? Did they deserve to be released from jail? The question of why they did what they did, however, has rarely been raised. Even an online search yields little in the way of results. The truth is that we do not know. The question of why they did it has no definitive answer.

Blame, by many, has been placed on bad parenting. Both boys came from broken homes and both, neighbours later claimed, were violent and out of control. Their family lives were, according to reports, dysfunctional. The Thompson family, in particular, were known to social services. Another suggestion, mainly by the tabloids, was that the boys had been influenced by ‘video nasties,’ violent films that were usually of the slasher genre. The war against these types of films had been going on since the mid eighties and now this awful crime was being held up as proof that they were dangerous. It has, however, been disputed, though I personally think there may be a limited truth to the idea. It would not be the only case of something violent, later on the arguments over video nasties would morph into arguments over violent video games, influencing children to commit heinous acts. The end of that year, to make a side point, would see the release of Doom and its graphic violence would lead one critic to call it a mass murder simulator. The release of Doom would see the start of that debate about violent video games.

The wider reason for the Bulger killing rests with the society of the time. Both Anthony Blair, then shadow Home Secretary, and John Major used the killing to argue that there was a major fault with society. Major said that ‘we need to condemn more and understand less’ whilst Blair said that the murder was representative of ‘the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name.’

Hypocrisy? Daily Mail Front page- date unknown (courtesy of cageyfilms.com)

It is extremely hard not to see his point, especially when we consider that the news and newspapers of ninety three would surely have been filled with terrible images of war and violence and bloodshed, misery on an enormous scale. Forget video nasties and violent video games, the newspapers were already bombarding society with reports and images of real world horror.

Only a matter of days after the Bulger killing a group of Islamic fundamentalists would detonate a truck bomb at the base of one of the World Trade Center towers, intending to bring both buildings crashing down. In their ultimate goal they failed but they still managed to kill six people and injured over a thousand. On the twelfth of March a bomb in Bombay killed two hundred and fifty seven. On the twentieth an IRA bomb in the North of England killed two children and injured fifty six. On the twenty fourth of April another IRA attack, this time in London, killed one person. On April the thirtieth a crazed fan stabbed tennis star Monica Selles in the back. It just went on and on and on, a seemingly never ending cycle of violence and atrocity and murder. Nowhere in the world seemed immune from this chaos and anyone, from children to tennis stars, could find themselves caught up in it. At the time it may not have looked like the world was coming to an end, but a cursory glance through the year makes it appear that way.

It was all a consequence, a consequence of years of political bungling and corruption, of years of failings in society, of years of failing to properly address the issues, years of unhealed divisions. Ireland and the whole conflict between Catholics and Protestants, the division between loyalists and separatists, which was now spilling out into the rest of Britain, had been an issue ever since the eighteen hundreds (and maybe earlier.) Thatcher’s long tenure in Downing Street had divided the country, creating an enormous gap between rich and poor, creating a social situation wherein children such as Thompson and Venables were allowed to develop. Years of corruption in Italy was creating the power vacuum that would allow Berlusconi to sweep to power. It was the smae kind of corruption that had given the mafia so much power and innocent people were now being hurt as a result of the attempts to bring them down.

The events of ninety three would also have their consequence. As a result of the IRA attacks the Downing Street Declaration would commit the UK and Irish governments to the search for a permanent solution to the Irish troubles and laid the initial groundwork for ninety seven’s Good Friday Agreement. Parents would keep a more watchful eye on their children after Bulger, contributing with other factors to a situation where children would become increasingly housebound, turning, for their play, towards video games of increasing violence. The formation of the EU  and the single market would create a sore-spot in some sections of the British public, one that over the following twenty four years would grow and begin to fester, fuelled by propagandists and people of dubious reputation. The carrion had begun circling a few years earlier but now they came down to roost and the year would see the creation of one of the vilest groups to ever to stain British politics, UKIP.

There would be one event that would have huge ramifications, especially for the US but also for the world at large. George Bush’s New World Order, the policy which had set America up as the world’s police, would fall down around Bill Clinton’s ears and whilst it would mean the US became initially hesitant to get involved in the affairs of other countries, in the long term it would lead to a retaliation that the world is still grappling with to this day.

It was called Operation Gothic Serpent and was part of an initiative to try and relieve the ongoing civil war in Somalia. On the third of October an assault force of one hundred and sixty men were sent into the centre of Mogadishu with the intent to capture Omar Salad Elmi, the foreign minister to Somali faction leader, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by Somali militia and the rescue, which became known as the Battle of Mogadishu, would be one of the most intense engagements in modern US military history. Nineteen US servicemen would be killed, a further seventy two wounded and one captured and an unknown number of Somalis, both military and civilian, would also be killed. It was, in short, a disaster.

Black Hawk Helicopter (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

This last gasp of the New World Order policy marked, supposedly, one of the first clashes between the US and Al Qaeda. There have been suggestions that they were the ones responsible for training the Somali forces and even that some high ranking members were involved in the battle. Whether they were or were not, it was the involvement in Somalia that would be one of the instances cited by Osama Bin Laden when he declared jihad on the US three years later.

Although we can also point to the New World Order policy in general, and especially the first Gulf War, more than any other this marks the moment when Islamic Fundamentalism really targeted itself against the Western world. This was when the future ‘war on terror’ became a certainty, when it became destined to happen.

This, therefore, though essentially a minor event when seen alone, was a significant turning point. I suspect that had the mission been a success then we might not have had the war on terror, at least not in the same way it happened. The failure of the US in Somalia made them appear weak and it gave the likes of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda an excuse for targeting them and for citing interference in foreign affairs and accusing them of imperialism. At the time nobody could have foreseen that US involvement in Somalia, in a conflict that is still ongoing, would have such world changing consequences. Nobody could have foreseen how it would contribute to the fire that fuels fundamentalism to this day.

Ninety three was a year of consequences, consequences for previous mistakes and failings. It was also a year that, further down the line, would have serious consequences of its own. But would the world learn from the mistakes that were made, the consequences that were ringing about their ears? No. It wouldn’t. Things would, actually, get an awful lot worse.

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