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Why Was Our Embassy In Rome So Afraid Of A Protest?

The American flag flies at half staff Dec. 15, 2012, to mourn the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, at the US Embassy in Rome. (Angelo Carconi/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
The American flag flies at half staff Dec. 15, 2012, to mourn the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, at the US Embassy in Rome. (Angelo Carconi/AP)

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What would you think if you received — as an American friend living in Rome did — this very sober message in an email from the American Embassy?

“A demonstration is expected to take place in front of the U.S. Embassy, on the corner between via Veneto and Via Bissolati. The demonstration organized by a group of American citizens abroad is expected to take place Saturday, March 24, 2018 beginning at 1100 and ending at 1300. 50 demonstrators are expected. The police will be monitoring the event.

Action to take:

We recommend that you:

-Avoid the area of the demonstrations.

-Exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings or protests.

-Monitor local media for updates.

-Keep a low profile."

Police will be "monitoring the event." "Avoid the area ..." And, my favorite, for the confusion it sows, “Keep a low profile.”

What exactly does that mean?

The unnamed, scary “demonstration” was, in fact, a “stand-in” to support the March for Our Lives. It was organized by a group whose name couldn’t be less menacing: American Expats for Positive Change. And, should their moniker leave any doubts about their mission, their web page patters gently:

“We are a group of American expats living abroad working to become more involved in creating positive change in our amazing home country. The group facilitates opportunities to connect with one another and mobilize efforts to bring more unity, understanding and most importantly action. We are far away from home but we cannot give in to feeling powerless.”

Have you ever read anything more benign? If this were the '60s, or even the '80s, I’d be sure I had discovered a CIA front.

Why is our own American Embassy so intent on keeping Americans visiting or living in Rome away from a small gathering of patriotic citizens?

As it happens, I attended that rally.

Maybe 150 students and soft-spoken retirees were in evidence. A woman organizer led us in a moment of silence for those who’d been murdered. Another young woman had us all sing, “Imagine.” Someone else initiated a chant. Maybe eight American students spoke in support of passing gun control legislation and urged everyone who hadn’t yet registered to vote to do so.

If this were the '60s, or even the '80s, I’d be sure I had discovered a CIA front.

While several students read statistics, most spoke personally. Two, studying now at John Cabot University in Rome, had been attending other public schools in Newtown, Conn., when the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting happened. They had known some of the children who died. Two more are current students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. All four focused on the impact on their lives and their schoolmates' lives of the trauma, violence and loss. All had trouble reading the short statements they’d written without breaking down. Not surprisingly, those of us listening frequently reached for tissues.

I can’t imagine what our embassy feared -- for itself, or for the other Americans it was warning. But its sense of looming peril seems off-key. What combination of paranoia, ignorance and partisanship guides it to suggest danger in a gathering of its own peaceful citizens?

I understand that American embassies around the world have been the targets of rage from citizens of the nations which host them, and attacks are not uncommon. But in contemporary Italy? The one time the embassy in Rome was attacked — in 1987 by a tiny extremist group called the Anti-Imperialist International Brigade, apparently made up of a handful of Japanese and Middle-Eastern members — no one was hurt. And no Americans were among the attackers.

Traditionally, U.S. embassies everywhere have seen teaching and demonstrating the virtues of the U.S. Constitution and of American democracy as part of their core work. Have this ambassador and his staff forgotten that the First Amendment protects not only free speech but also the freedom to assemble and protest?

There is something truly “rotten in the state” when a country’s diplomats undermine its nation’s core precepts.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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