Tuesday, 23 October 2012

L'Aquila Sentence - Trial or Witch-Hunt?

March 2009: Mr Giampaolo Gioacchino Giuliani is an amateur seismologist with no formal qualifications in that field. He has specialised in monitoring radon emissions in the hope of finding precursors to damaging earthquakes. Radon is a stable element whose flux is easily detected using the sort of apparatus that is sold to people who are concerned about the health effects of its accumulation in their homes. Slip faulting in areas of crustal stress can increase the radon content of air and groundwater. Hence, it is one potential indicator of enhanced seismic activity and impending earthquakes (Ghosh et al. 2011). Mr Giuliani put his apparatus in the cellar of a school in L'Aquila. When he detected large increases in the radon content of the air, he informed the local, regional and national civil protection authorities, but not the general public.

Nevertheless, word got out. Local people became agitated, as an irregular sequence of small earthquakes had been occurring since October 2008. Faced with public anxiety, the national and local authorities mounted a vigorous campaign against Mr Giuliani, which involved preparations to sue him for punitive damages for 'disturbing the public peace'.

In response to public anxieties, and to the sequence of small earthquakes, the Italian government convened a meeting of the Commissione Grandi Rischi (national Major Risks Commission) in L'Aquila on 31 March 2009. The two-page minutes of the meeting were later published by the weekly magazine L'Espresso (L'Espresso 2009). Present at the meeting were regional functionaries and six professors of geosciences or engineering, all of whom had important managerial appointments in the national civil protection organisation. One was the Director of the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology; two were officials of the national Department of Civil Protection.

The consensus of the discussion, as reported in the minutes, is summed up in the following statement:
"Il Prof. Barberi conclude che non c'รจ nessun motivo per cui si possa dire che una sequenza di scosse di masso magnitudo possa essere considerata precursore di un forte evento." ("Professor Barberi concludes that there is no reason for saying that a sequence of low magnitude shocks could be considered the precursor of a strong event.")
The tone of the discussion, as evinced by the minutes, is more than definite: it is categorical.

It should be borne in mind that the 1703 earthquake in L'Aquila was part of a swarm of shocks: it killed an estimated 6,000 people (Cello et al. 1997). Moreover, there have been other historical examples of earthquake sequences in the central Apennines that have included a main shock.

In reality, such ebullient confidence was probably intended to disguise the fact that the level of local preparedness was far too low to be able to cope adequately with major public disruption.

At 00:30 hrs on Monday 6th April 2009 an earthquake shock occurred that was alarmingly large. It did little damage but it sent many people rushing outside their houses. In Paganica (population 5,024), one of the satellite towns of L'Aquila municipality, the local civil protection organisation sent loudspeaker vans to tour the streets and invite people to calm down and return home. No doubt they were motivated by the policy that had been so stridently set in the meeting of the Major Risks Commission one week earlier. At Paganica, five people were killed in the collapse of their homes, and tens of people were injured.

In Italy, the recession has had the effect of reducing the tolerance that ordinary citizens have of corruption and inefficiency. It has also increased the sense of antipathy that such people have of the political class, which is often known as 'the caste'. A significant number of members of the 'caste' are academics. Not all of them are above reproach. Some of the public opprobrium has been directed to specific cases of corruption, malfeasance or inefficiency, but a significant proportion is unfocussed and indiscriminate.

One development that Italy shares with many other countries is the tendency to turn the locality of a disaster into a crime scene. In L'Aquila, many collapsed buildings were circled with legal tape and posted with official notices indicating that judicial enquiries were underway. The trial of six functionaries of the Civil Protection organisation is a by-product of that process.

In trying to understand the trial and sentence, it is important to bear in mind the context of the recovery from the earthquake of 6 April 2009. L'Aquila is an economic backwater, a mountain city with relatively little dynamism (that, many would say, is its charm). After the earthquake, it underwent a sort of 'forced modernisation' (Alexander 2012). I have argued elsewhere (Alexander 2011) that the process cannot fully be understood using common sense logic, but that it needs instead the application of political logic, which may be a rather different thing. Huge expenditures were made on the basis of political considerations, and the result was a radical--and highly contentious--redefinition of the concept of welfare (see citations for details).

The upshot of this situation was an atmosphere that was very highly charged in political terms--even by Italian standards. Rarely, if ever, has there been an Italian disaster in which the issues were black and white. Even more than usual, L'Aquila bristled with overtones and subtle shades of meaning. It made the scandal of the tardy government response to the 1980 Irpinia-Basilicata earthquake look like a paragon of simplicity.

The move to prosecute the representatives of national Civil Protection was unprecedented in modern European history. This is one among several reasons why few developments have been so roundly misunderstood in international debate. The legal action was seen as an unfair attack on science--lawyers demanding that seismologists predict earthquakes when that is physically impossible. In reality, it was nothing of the sort. The trial was about responsibility for statements that have potentially fatal consequences in terms of public safety.

What we should reflect on is the role of the precautionary principle in legal responsibilities. The six defendants were condemned because they failed to invoke it. It can be argued that, if they had done so, lives might have been saved. That is a hypothetical consideration, but how hypothetical is a matter of debate or conjecture, not measurement.

It is also important to remember that the context of decision making changed radically and abruptly between the pre- and post-earthquake phases. Before the event, the public and official debate was dominated by the question of how to suppress the alarm; afterwards, the issues were more diverse. They included housing the homeless survivors, establishing culpability and limiting public exposure to further risk.

In the end, as much experience in the United States should testify (Hershey 1986), legal action is not a good and efficient means of learning lessons about disaster risk reduction. A less adversarial, but equally penetrating, consensual methodology would be welcome. Meanwhile, there will be moratoria on prediction, warning and preventative action to the risk of imminent disaster, impelled by fear of legal action. That is not a promising milieu in which to create resilience. The trial of the 'Aquila Six' was undeniably full of political overtones--perhaps that is true of all such actions in Italy--but it was also a judicial necessity. Despite that, there have been accusations that the sentence is largely based on what people can remember of their motivations for action on that April night more than three years ago (Nosengo 2012)--perhaps a rather thin motive for condemning seven people to prison. Nevertheless, one hopes that this landmark trial will represent a positive turning point in the assumption of responsibility for civil protection actions.


Alexander, D.E. 2011. Civil protection amid disasters and scandals. In E. Gualmini and E. Pasotti (eds) Italian Politics: Much Ado About Nothing? Berghahn, New York and Oxford: 180-197; La protezione civile tra scandali e disastri naturali. Politica in Italia 2011: i fatti dell'anno e le interpretazioni. Istituto Cattaneo, Il Mulino, Bologna: 187-206.

Alexander, D.E. 2012. An evaluation of the medium-term recovery process after the 6 April 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, central Italy. Environmental Hazards: Human and Policy Dimensions 11: 1-13.

Cello, G., S. Mazzoli and E. Tondi 1998. The crustal fault structure responsible for the 1703 earthquake sequence of central Italy. Journal of Geodynamics 26(2-4): 443-460.

Ghosh, D., A. Deb, S.R. Sahoo, S. Haldar and R. Sengupta 2011. Radon as seismic precursor: new data with well water of Jalpaiguri, India. Natural Hazards 58(3): 877-889.

Hershey, N. 1986. Legal perspectives in responding to disasters. Journal of the World Association of Emergency and Disaster Medicine 2(1-4): 96-102.

L’Espresso, 2009. Verbale riunione della Commissione Grandi Rischi, L’Aquila, 31 marzo 2009. L’Espresso magazine, Rome, 17 April 2009.

Nosengo, N. 2012. L'Aquila, la baracconata degli esperti e la sproporzione dei giudici. www.scienzainrete.it (accessed 26 October 2012).