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Omertà (//, Italian pronunciation: [omerˈta])[a] is a Southern Italian code of silence and code of honor that places importance on silence in the face of questioning by authorities or outsiders; non-cooperation with authorities, the government, or outsiders; and willfully ignoring and generally avoiding interference with the illegal activities of others (i.e., not contacting law enforcement or the authorities when one is aware of, witness to, or even the victim of certain crimes). It originated and remains common in Southern Italy, where banditry or brigandage and Mafia-type criminal organizations (like the Camorra, Cosa Nostra, 'Ndrangheta and Sacra Corona Unita) have long been strong. Similar codes are also deeply rooted in other areas of the Mediterranean, including rural Spain, Crete (Greece), and Corsica, all of which share a common or similar historic culture with Southern Italy.
It also exists, to a lesser extent, in certain Italian-American neighborhoods, especially in neighborhoods where the Italian-American Mafia has strong influence, as well as in Italian ethnic enclaves in countries such as Germany, Canada, and Australia, where Italian organized crime exists. Similar codes of silence have been observed in Jewish-American, Greek-American, African-American, Hispanic-American, and certain working class Irish-American neighborhoods. Retaliation against informers is common in criminal circles, where informers are known as "rats" or "snitches".
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word to the Spanish word hombredad, meaning manliness, modified after the Sicilian word omu "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. The first Antimafia Commission of the Italian parliament in the 1970s accepted the origin based on omu on the authority of Antonio Cutrera, with no reference to Spanish.
The basic principle of omertà is that it is not "manly" to seek aid from legally constituted authorities to settle personal grievances. The suspicion of being a cascittuni (an informant) constitutes 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 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, but if it is 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 that he has not committed, he is supposed to serve the sentence without giving the police any information about the real criminal, even if the criminal has nothing to do with the Mafia. Within Mafia culture, breaking omertà is punishable by death.
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 that reason, many Mafia-related crimes go unsolved. Observers of the Mafia debate whether omertà should best be understood as an expression of social consensus for 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").
It has also been described as follows: "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."
Omertà is a code of silence, according to one of the first Mafia researchers Antonio Cutrera, a former officer of public security. It seals lips of men even in their own defense and even when the accused is innocent of charged crimes. Cutrera quoted a native saying which was first uttered (as goes the legend) by a wounded man to his assailant: "If I live, I'll kill you. If I die, I forgive you."
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 colonisation. It has been observed at least as far back as the 16th century as a way of opposing Spanish rule.
The Italian-American mafioso Joe Valachi famously broke the omertà code in 1963, when he publicly spoke out about the existence of the Mafia and testified before a US Senate committee. He became the first in the modern history of the Italian-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 witness in Italy, who both 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 and so his testimony led to the conviction of only himself and his uncle.
Omertà is widely reported in sport in relation to use of prohibited substances by athletes. The Cycling Independent Reform Commission report of 2015 contains the word "omerta" no fewer than 17 times, and stated:
A former directeur sportif described omerta as a system in which riders were open among themselves about doping, and omerta operated externally so doping was not spoken about in public.
An academic paper highlighted that those who broke the code of silence within cycling were ostracised and sometimes pushed out of the sport because they were not willing to support or join in with doping. Any rider who did speak out about doping could find himself informally sanctioned by the rest of the peloton.
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.
- Michael, Herzfeld (2004). The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-32913-5.
- Relazione conclusiva, Commissione parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia in Sicilia, Rome 1976, p. 106
- (in 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
- Paoli, Mafia Brotherhoods, p. 109
- Porello, The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia, p. 23;
- "Know Italy Travel Guide & Places to Go - Knowital".
- Killers in Prison, Time, October 4, 1963
- "The Smell of It", Time, October 11, 1963
- "Cycling Independent Reform Commission - Report to the President of the Union Cycliste Internationale - pages 25-26" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-04-22.
- "Omerta". WorldCat. Retrieved 28 February 2012.
- Explanatory footnotes
- 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