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Omertà (//; Italian pronunciation: [omerˈta]) is a cultural attitude and code of honour that places heavy importance on a deep-rooted "code of silence", non-cooperation with authorities, and non-interference in the illegal (and legal) actions of others. It originated and remains very common in Corsica and Southern Italy where Mafia-type criminal organizations such as the Cosa Nostra, 'Ndrangheta, Sacra Corona Unita, and Camorra are strong. It also exists to a lesser extent in certain Italian-American neighborhoods where the Italian-American Mafia has influence and other Italian ethnic enclaves in countries such as Germany, Canada, and Australia, where Italian organized crime exists.
Prejudice and retaliation against informers who invoke authority is common in criminal circles, and even in the school playground ("sneak" or "snitch").
Omertà implies "the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on its services, even when one has been victim of a crime". A person should absolutely avoid interfering in the business of others and should not inform the authorities of a crime under any circumstances (though if justified he may personally avenge a physical attack on himself or on his family by vendetta, literally a taking of revenge, a feud). Even if somebody is convicted of a crime he has not committed, he is supposed to serve the sentence without giving the police any information about the real criminal, even if that criminal has nothing to do with the Mafia himself. Within Mafia culture, breaking omertà is punishable by death.
The code was adopted by Sicilians long before the emergence of Cosa Nostra and it may have been heavily influenced by centuries of state oppression and foreign colonization. It has been observed at least as far as back as the 16th century as a way of opposing Spanish rule. It is also deeply rooted in rural Crete, Greece.
The origin of the word is traced (by the OED) to the Spanish word hombredad, meaning manliness, modified after the Sicilian word omu for man. According to a different theory, the word comes from Latin humilitas (humility), which became umirtà and then finally omertà in some southern Italian dialects.
Omertà is a code of silence, according to one of the first Mafia researchers Antonio Cutrera, a former officer of public security, that seals lips of men even in their own defense and even when the accused is innocent of charged crimes. Cutrera quoted a native saying first uttered (so goes the legend) by a wounded man to his assailant: "If I live, I'll kill you. If I die, I forgive you".
The basic principle of omertà is that it is not "manly" to seek the aid of legally constituted authorities in order to settle personal grievances. The suspicion of being a cascittuni (an informant) constituted the blackest mark against manhood, according to Cutrera. Each wronged individual had the obligation of looking out for his own interests by either avenging himself, or finding a patron—but not the state—who will see to it that the job is done.
Omertà is an extreme form of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority. One of its absolute tenets is that it is deeply demeaning and shameful to betray even one's deadliest enemy to the authorities. For this reason, many Mafia-related crimes go unsolved for decades. Observers of the Mafia debate whether omertà should best be understood as an expression of social consensus surrounding the Mafia or whether it is instead a pragmatic response based primarily on fear, as implied by a popular Sicilian proverb Cu è surdu, orbu e taci, campa cent'anni 'mpaci ("He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace").
The Italian-American mafioso Joe Valachi famously broke the omertà code when in 1963 he publicly spoke out about the existence of the Mafia and testified before the United States Congress. In Sicily, the phenomenon of pentito (Italian he who has repented) broke omertà.
Among the most famous Mafia pentiti is Tommaso Buscetta, the first important state witness who helped Judge Giovanni Falcone to understand the inner workings of Cosa Nostra and described the Sicilian Mafia Commission or Cupola, the leadership of the Sicilian Mafia. A predecessor, Leonardo Vitale, who gave himself up to the police in 1973, was judged mentally ill, so his testimony led only to the conviction of himself and his uncle.
A more popular and more simplified definition of the code of omertà is: "Whoever appeals to the law against his fellow man is either a fool or a coward. Whoever cannot take care of himself without police protection is both. It is as cowardly to betray an offender to justice, even though his offences be against yourself, as it is not to avenge an injury by violence. It is dastardly and contemptible in a wounded man to betray the name of his assailant, because if he recovers, he must naturally expect to take vengeance himself."
In popular culture
Mario Puzo wrote novels based on the principles of Omertà and the Cosa Nostra. His best known works in that vein are the trilogy The Godfather, The Sicilian, and Omertà. The final book of the series, Omertà, was finished before his death but published posthumously in 2000 from his manuscript.
- The grave accent in Italian , Sicilian and Corsica indicates that the final ‹a› is stressed. In English, it is often spelled omerta, without an accent, and pronounced with misplaced stress as [oˈmɛrtə] rather than [omerˈta].
- Paoli, Mafia Brotherhoods, p. 109
- knowital.com (not a very reliable source)
- Michael Herzfeld, The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004; ISBN 0-226-32913-5]
- However, the theory that omertà originates from umiltà was already discarded by the first Antimafia Commission of the Italian parliament in the 1970s, which traces the origin to omu. See: (Italian) Relazione conclusiva, Commissione parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia in Sicilia, Rome 1976, p. 106
- (Italian) Antonio Cutrera, La mafia e i mafiosi, Reber, Palermo: 1900, p. 27 (reprinted by Arnaldo Forni Editore, Sala Bolognese 1984, ISBN 88-271-2487-X), quoted in Nelli, The Business of Crime, p. 13-14
- Killers in Prison, Time, October 4, 1963
- "The Smell of It", Time, October 11, 1963
- Porello, The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia, p. 23;
- "Omerta". WorldCat. Retrieved 28 February 2012.
- Blok, Anton (1988). The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860-1960. A study of violent peasant entrepreneurs, Long Grove (Illinois): Waveland Press ISBN 0-88133-325-5 (Originally published in 1974)
- Nelli, Humbert S. (1981). The Business of Crime. Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-226-57132-7 (Originally published in 1976)
- Paoli, Letizia (2003). Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-515724-9
- Porrello, Rick (1995). The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia. Corn Sugar and Blood, New York: Barricade books ISBN 1-56980-058-8
- Servadio, Gaia (1976), Mafioso. A history of the Mafia from its origins to the present day, London: Secker & Warburg ISBN 0-436-44700-2