NORCIA — Every tragedy has its symbol, a photograph, often, that sticks in people's minds and encapsulates with profound immediacy the raw experience at hand. Sunday's earthquake in Central Italy is no exception.
In the image, a few rays of sunlight illuminate a group of nuns and displaced elderly residents praying in the devastated town of Norcia, in front of the crumbling remains of the town's famous basilica. There are five women in the foreground and the oldest, in a wheelchair, is calmly chatting to her friend.
If it wasn't a color photo, the image of warlike destruction would look like a scene pulled from a neorealist film of the post-war era. But the scenes of devastation plaguing central Italy don't just resemble the years following World War II — they are its second coming.
It's not only the central regions of Italy that live in constant fear of violent tremors — the whole country rests on highly seismic land that we no longer seem to comprehend. As they did in the post-war years and during other periods of crisis, the Italian people must unite around their own identity and their most important values: courage and generosity.
We live in a time of divisiveness, when our egos and fears are getting the better of us and we put up walls and shut our doors and windows. We turn to anger so that we can ignore the anguish eating us up inside. But in the aftermath of these earthquakes, it's time to return to our origins and rediscover what we were taught by our parents and grandparents, those who once rebuilt this country from the ashes of the war.
Politicians will have to do their jobs and rebuild quickly, this time according to seismic construction norms to ensure safety, and then invest significant funds to revitalize the economies of the many towns in the large earthquake zone. Most importantly, the destroyed churches, hamlets, castles, and bell towers that are the beating heart of provincial Italian life must be restored to their former glory.
There will be the usual controversies and the road to recovery will not be easy, but here and now our mission must be made clear. We must stay beside the victims of this disaster and once again become the country that — as a product of Catholicism and Socialism — knows how to express extraordinary solidarity.
Earthquakes evoke atavistic fears. They shake us awake at night when we're least expecting it, the way tales of monsters scare little children. Like in times of war, those most in need of our help among the displaced are young children and the ailing elderly. Even the smallest gesture of kindness we make can be important and decisive, because in times of crisis communities either disintegrate into disparate individuals or reunite as a collective, stronger and closer than before.
After Sept. 11 we all loved New York; after Charlie Hebdo we were all Charlie; after the Bataclan we all rushed to the cafés of Paris. Today, those crumbling houses in Central Italy are our houses. That woman on the wheelchair in the photo is our mother, our grandmother — we cannot abandon her.