The stillness of the Roman night, usually interrupted only by the church bells, was broken by a loud boom that set window panes aquiver. "Go back to sleep," said the young lawyer to the 8-year-old pajama-clad boy who appeared in the door of the living room. "It's only another bomb."
Not long after, the lawyer stood up, shaking his head, and turned off the television set. "You know," he said, "It is really a miracle that this country continues to survive. Perhaps Italy is really much more resilient than most people - including many Italians - tend to think."
The new program on TV had included a series of what Italians call "brutte notizie" (ugly or unpleasant new items) such as the murder by terrorists of a Christian Democratic city counselman in Rome, the murder of a political magazine editor, the wounding of a left-wing student by three youths who opened fire when the boy's mother opened their apartment door and several firebombings or other attacks on police stations, party officers, hospitals and private cars.
But the news was no more "ugly" that night than on countless other evenings, before and since. There were 2,365 acts of political violence in 1978, including 43 leg shootings and 23 murders.
Police and the Italian Communist Party - the two most assiduous chroniclers of these depression statistics - say actions by the "Partito Armato", or "armed party." are on the rise. Already this year, 14 people have been killed by terrorists and another 23 wounded.
Few hard-line demands
Reams of paper and ink have been consumed in speculation over the causes of such political violence, but what is most striking for any foreigner visiting or working here is the degree to which this country has been able to maintain its collective sanity.
The other day at a demonstration protesting a terrorist attack in which two yound policemen were fatally shot, a small group of Romans began chanting, "Assassini, assassini" (Murderers, murderers), and shouting demands for new and harsher laws.
But for the most part there has been no panic here, and consequently few of the hard-line demands for serious political repression that history and the recent experience of a neighboring country, West Germany, would have led one to expect.
A visitor to an Italian ministry, the Parliament and even to the presidential palace encounters no real security measures, and although machine-gun toting police are highly visible in the streets, there is no state-of-siege climate, not now nor even during the months when the Red Birgades were holding former Prime Minister Aldo Moro captive.
Even since the Moro tragedy, many Italians have tended to exorcise their subconscious fears or concerns by resorting to black humor or other types of jokes. "Careful, or I'll get the Brigades after you," a smiling building janitor said the other day to a tenant who had left garbage on the stairs.
Most people's lives procede normally, with most of the conversations one overhears dedicated to business-as-usual topics such as sports, vacations, taxes, inflation and - more rarely - politics.
In part this involves the vitality and resiliency of a people who, historically, have demonstrated time and again a deep love for life and an unflagging capacity to take disaster in stride.
And, with the exception of the neo-fascists, all of Italy's political parties have been making a concerted effort to stifle any tendencies toward a witch-hurt type of atmosphere.
But after living in Italy for many years it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reasons for this country's survival in 1979 can be traced to the same characteristics that account for its failure, 35 years after the fall of Fascism, to become a modern, cohesive society.
In other words, the strength of this "soft society" - one which rolls with the punches rather than shatters or cracks - may lie paradoxically in its inherent weaknesses.After all, how can a state that doesn't exist fall apart or , for that matter, efficiently seek to defend itself?
Over the last few years the victims of Italian terrorism, people who were murdered, shot or simply terrorized, have included magistrates, business executives, doctors, lawyers, architects, newsmen, university professors, shopkeepers, bureaucrats, labor organizers and politicians of varying political hues.
Many of those murdered have been policemen and carabinieri from working-class families whose decision to put on a uniform was motivated primarily by a desperate desire for social advancement.
The terrorists bullets, then, do not discriminate, either in the political or social sense. Yet an astonishing number of Italians seem to react to the bloodshed with callous indifference, matter-of-factness and - where politicians are the victims - with a disturbing "I hope they get them all" attitude.
Why should this be? Certainly not because the Italians - who have resisted the personality-distorting strains of urban life better than most of us - are more hardhearted than people anywhere else.
Today, as for several centuries, the major Italian concern is the status, well-being and comfort of the individual family unit.Over the decades, the absence of united, equitable and effective government has left many Italians with the conviction that they can best look out for themselves.
Role of the family
With the failure by a succession of postwar Christian Democrat governments to solve significant social and economic questions such as child care for working mothers, jobs for new high school and college graduates, pensions for old folks and housing and health care, the Italian family has remained the citizen's major source of protection, help and even hope.
The majority of young people still live at home, sometimes even after they are married. Grandmothers take care of the working mother's children, and in turn rely on their own children for sustenance and moral support. Housing, jobs, bargains and school enrollment are all sought and found through daily contracts. No wonder many Italians act as if what socioligists here call "civil society" doesn't exist. No wonder that, "But what does it have to do with me?" is one of the most frequent phrases to spring to Italian lips.
When it comes to terrorism and the widespread political violence that most Italians still experience indirectly - though hearsay, newspapers, television and radio broadcasts - the family thus acts as a psychological "shock absorber" that may prove invaluable in Italy's immediate future.
In the long-run, however, the government's inability to stop terrorism will further erode the credibility of this country's institutions and the renewed tendency to seek refuse in the family is likely to have a more insidious, antisocial effect.
A similar counterproductive tendency lies hidden in the deep-seated cynicism that is so hard for many resident Americans to adjust to. The offspring of a history characterized by violence, corruption, foreign invasions and political scheming by monarachs and popes alike, the Italians have seen and heard it all.
The left-wing terrorism that began in Italy in the early 1970s has been attributed by observers to several interrelated factors. The decline of Catholicism, the weakening of western values and the super-rapid industrailization of Italy in recent years are frequently cited. The violence-prone leftist rhetoric of the past, the "rightward" shift of the Italian Communist Party in more recent years and the widespread rage against a political class that has been unable and unwilling to make a genuine attempt to eliminate corruption, inefficiency and inequity are also clearly involved.
Despite some illusions to the contrary, a strong dose of added police efficiency would hardly suffice to wipe terrorism out. What is needed is new leadership and imagainative, significant and widespread social reform. CAPTION: Illustration, Behrendt in Het Parool, Amsterdam