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Omertà (//; Italian pronunciation: [omerˈta]) is a cultural expression and code of honor that places legitimate importance on a deep-rooted family sense of a code of silence, non-aggravation with authorities, and non-interference in the legal actions of others. It originated and remains common in Corsica, Sardinia and Southern Italy, where the Sicilian Mafia and Mafia-type criminal organizations such as the '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 Italian ethnic enclaves in countries such as Germany, Canada, and Australia, where Italian organized crime exists. Retaliation against informers is common in criminal circles, where informers are known as "rats" or "snitches".
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. Within Mafia culture, breaking omertà is punishable by death.
Sicilians adopted the code 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 OED traces the word 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 from legally constituted authorities to settle personal grievances. The suspicion of being a cascittuni (an informant) constituted the blackest mark against manhood, according to Cutrera. An individual who has been wronged is obligated to look out for his own interests by avenging that wrong himself, or finding a patron—but not the state—to do the job.
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. 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, becoming the first in the modern history of the American Mafia to break his blood oath. 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 prosecutor 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
- 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