On the 13th of December, in my birthplace Florence, an Italian gunman killed two street vendors from Senegal, wounded another three, and committed suicide when the police reached him. The killing was racially-motivated and Gianluca Casseri, 50, was a writer for and member of CasaPound, a neo-fascist group. The Senegalese street vendors he killed (Samb Modou, 40yrs old, and Diop Mor, 54yrs old) lived in Italy for a considerable time and leave behind their wives and children in Senegal. The life of migrants in Italy, in particular for Muslims such as the Senegalese, is known. The xenophobic Lega Nord has built its political reputation on the exploitation of Italians’ frustration with a badly managed migration policy and an increase of refugees. Furthermore, Italians often know very little about Islam and Muslim culture, despite the centuries of, for the most part peaceful, cultural and scientific exchanges. The ‘Mamma li Turchi’ attitude, facilitated by local newspapers and Italian neo-fascist websites, has reached its epitome. The former Berlusconi government and its rhetoric has also played a part in cultivating such atmosphere. The difficulties that Muslims in Italy face to build a proper mosque often seem insurmountable.
This killing in Italy did not catch me by surprise. During my visits in Italy I became aware of how a certain anti-Muslim rhetoric, which Fallaci powerfully expressed, has found not only sympathizers and fervent believers, but also the attention of a general public for which anti-Muslim attitudes posses a cathartic function within a country condemned to a populist political and economic decline. Among the millions screaming in forums, in newspapers and on blogs against the immigrants, Muslims and the now fully implemented (it appears) Shari’a in Italy, there will always be some who dream of being a ‘hero’.
Such people, in the name of the Italic supreme race, or in the name of Jesus, or both (as is often the case), will fantasize about taking matters into their own hands and spilling the hated blood of the ‘Saladin’ in order to bring Europe back to Christendom. Some will depart from fantasy and take a step further and plan actions. On the 13th of December, Gianluca Casseri succeeded in what was planned as a ‘suicide’ terrorist action.
Although many are the differences between Breivik and the more mysterious Casseri, many are also the similarities. The isolated lonely life, the love of fantasy literature (Casseri published some books), the Celtic imaginary tradition (so dear to the Lega Nord), and the reference to heroic resistance to Islam through more or less mythological heroes. In the case of Casseri, this ‘hero’ was the cruel Dracula whom historically in 1461 killed every Turk and Muslim he could find in southern Walachi.
Analyzing some of the messages left by members of radical far-right forums, we encounter again the Nazi imagination which is full of a mix of pagan symbolism and empty Christian rhetoric and the need of an enemy other, in this case the Muslim rather than the Jew. The similarity, in those forums, of the rhetoric praising Breivik and Casseri is impressive. Both them have been mythologized in a similar way to how suicide bombers or jihadi fighters are. Perhaps most striking is the evident hate of the ‘different’ and an impressive lack of empathy. Empathy is indeed the key to understanding these incompressible acts of hatred.
Racism, or attitudes of hatred towards the so called ‘out-group’, which often is the main cause of radicalism, as I have suggested in my last book, is better explained through processes of identity and emotions. Recent psychological, neurological and even endocrinological behavioral studies (to which anthropologists have paid too little, if any, attention) have shown what I call a ‘natural‘ bias that we have for the ‘other‘, in particular when phenotypical traits are involved (such as skin colour for instance).
Just to mention some of these studies, Matteo Forgiarini et.al (2011) have investigated ‘the existence of a racial bias in the emotional reaction to other people’s pain and its link with implicit racist biases.’ The study confirmed, while testing Caucasian people, ‘a reduced reaction to the pain of African individuals was also correlated with the observers’ individual implicit race bias’. Alessio Avenanti et all (2010) studied the empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-races as far as pain was concerned, and again this study found that although ‘human beings react empathically to the pain of stranger individuals […] racial bias and stereotypes may change this reactivity into a group-specific lack of sensorimotor resonance’.
More recent studies, interestingly, have even challenged that the famous Oxytocin is a bit more sinister than the ‘hug hormone’ we knew, and found, as Carsten K. W. De Dreu et al’s study (2011) has shown, that it may have a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence. Yet this seems not enough to explain the actions of Gianluca Casseri. Indeed, there is another element that we have to consider: dehumanization. Now, for a long time social science, and in particular anthropology, has discussed the dehumanization of certain groups as merely a cultural process.
Yet the reality again becomes more dramatic when we combine what we know from interviews with what neuroscience, through fMRI studies, can tell us. Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske (2006) have shown that dehumanization is not just an attitude, but rather something that is clearly identifiable within brain functions – such as the absence of the typical neural signature for social cognition, as well as exaggerated amygdala and insula reactions (consistent with disgust) and the disgust ratings they elicit.
I could provide other evidence of the fact that all of us, as human beings, have these ‘natural’ biases, yet the difference is that the majority of us is able to control them, to see them as stereotypes which we have been educated to reject or at least challenge. Yet the above ‘natural’ characteristics, as they can be controlled, they can also be reinforced and transformed into a cognitive lens through which to make sense of the world. Paranoia is surely the result and it is clear that both Casseri and Breivik were and are paranoid, but not crazy. Indeed, they are the result of certain rhetoric, ideology and culture – what in other words is becoming, to use Dan Sperber’s epidemiological model, a robust replication system.
Casseri needed his victims’ blood to become the mythical hero of those Italians (but also Europeans, Americans and Australians) whom have decided to live in the darkness of their ignorance and believe that they are fighting a civilizational war; a belief marked by an explosive mix of mythology, religion and fantasy. Casseri is at the same time the extreme product of such robust replication system and another ‘infectious’ agent. Like in the case of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim fanatics, Cessari’s fantasy can only be the nightmare of the too often silent moderate majority; the only force that can stop the system from replicating beyond return.