The Arar and Abu Omar cases were different in this respect: Along with his indictments of intelligence officials last week, Mr. Spataro laid criminal charges against Abu Omar himself, charging him with membership in a criminal organization (a crime in Italy). Mr. Spataro said that he strongly believes that Abu Omar could have been prosecuted for terrorism far more efficiently if the U.S. practice of rendition had not been followed. But now, he says, the terror-fighters are just as guilty as the alleged terrorist.
"I want to make clear that according to Italian law there is no difference between prosecuting terrorism and prosecuting those who fight terrorism," he said.
That seems to be the bridge that was crossed in Europe this week: It is now the people who were the most stalwart anti-terrorist fighters, the most loyal supporters of George W. Bush's approach to al-Qaeda, who are speaking out against the abuses of that system. With an eye on Canada, the moderates and centre-rightists of Europe are realizing that the U.S. is not prepared to offer a reasonable explanation for those abuses.
That was the case this week with Gijs de Vries, the EU's head of anti-terrrorism, who announced that he will step down in March because he has lost faith in his U.S. partners. He previously had embraced the American approach to counterterrorism, and harshly criticized the European parliament for its rendition-system investigation, with which he refused to co-operate. But on Wednesday, he said that the lack of U.S. explanation for its actions had made it impossible for him to do his job properly.
"The CIA renditions, together with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the military commissions act, unfortunately have tarnished the image of the United States in the fight against terrorism, among Muslims and non-Muslims," he told reporters. "I hope the United States, now that there is a new political dynamic in the U.S. Congress, can return to a mainstream interpretation of international human rights."
It was this sort of realization, on a larger scale, that led to the collapse of the Italian government on Wednesday. The expansion of a U.S. military base and the presence of Italian troops in Afghanistan were bound to be divisive in Italy, where Communists and other parties of the extreme left always have built a strong base on anti-Americanism. Those parties make up part of the left-wing coalition government of Romano Prodi, which took power from Silvio Berlusconi in last spring's elections.
But the U.S. base became a rallying point for more than just the far left. A public sense that Italian airports and bases have been used for immoral or questionable activities has led the wider Italian public to take part in protests against the expansion, drawing tens of thousands of people.
It created an environment where even the parties of Mr. Berlusconi's right could vote against the pro-American measures without upsetting their constituencies. On Wednesday, it was mainly right-wing politicians who voted against the military-base expansion and the Afghanistan measure, bringing down the government.
Sergio Romano, a former Italian senior diplomat and leading voice of the country's centre-right, told The Globe and Mail that he now believes that the U.S. should not have bases on Italian soil, because it has abused its friendly relationship with its European allies to the point that it can no longer be trusted.
"I believe that the very same people who have been most aware that terrorism is a threat are now the people who are critical in this case of kidnapping," he said from his Milan office. "I think that calling it a 'war on terrorism' has caused a number of mistakes on our part."
It is bizarre to find the likes of Mr. Romano, an ardently pro-American voice, calling for restrictions on U.S. rights in Europe. But with an eye to Mr. Harper's government, European leaders are realizing that it is perilous to support the Bush administration at this awkward political moment.
"I think there is a body of opinion which feels that this kind of thing should be looked at with new eyes," Mr. Romano said "We know very well that the Americans used their bases in Djibouti to attack al-Qaeda in Ethiopia this year . . . If they decide to attack Hezbollah, God forbid, they'll be using Italian bases to do it.
"And we won't be told beforehand. We'll learn the next day. And you become complicit in such things. We do not want that any more."
Doug Saunders is a London-based member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau. His Focus column, Reckoning, will return next week.