ROME – In the past, race rarely has been a debated issue in Italian elections. Usually the politics of the bel paese revolve more around a mounting unemployment rate, credibility in Europe and widespread corruption.

However, a recent cause célèbre has opened a window onto the underbelly of racial tensions in the country, which will no doubt play an important role in upcoming national elections set for March 4.

It’s a complicated tale, but the essentials are these: An 18-year-old Italian woman and recovering drug addict named Pamela Mastropietro allegedly was killed by her former dealer, a Nigerian immigrant, with her dismembered body discovered in two suitcases in the central Italian town of Macerata on Jan. 31. Enraged by saturation media coverage of the case, a young Italian man decided to go on a rampage against black people, eventually wounding six in a drive-by shooting, later saying he was convinced they’re all “drug dealers.”

While those developments have sparked widespread national revulsion, the fact that a strong cohort of Italians appears to believe the retaliation shooting was understandable, perhaps even defensible, has generated an unusual national examination of conscience about racial issues.

“I wanted to avenge Pamela,” said Luca Traini, the drive-by shooter, “because the phenomenon of illegal immigration must be stopped.”

Traini shot and wounded five men and one woman from several African countries, and is now charged with attempted murder and held in the same prison as Innocent Oseghale, the Nigerian man accused of killing and hiding the body of Mastropietro.

As always in Italy, the voice of the Church in moments of national tragedy has a special resonance.

“Poor victim, poor assassin, poor avenger,” said Bishop Nazzareno Marconi of Macerata, referring to the three protagonists of the tragedy that has gripped Italy.

“Poor is the society that created them,” Marconi said. “The young girl who succumbed to drugs, the young man who chopped her up, [and] the man who shot to avenge her, are three witnesses of a chain of failures that concern all of us.”

The bishop said the story of Pamela shows the “community’s incapacity to accompany young people and recover those who are lost,” while the butcher who took her life puts the spotlight on how “we abandon those whom we welcome to the circuit of criminality.”

Traini fell into the trap of looking for a shortcut, Nazzareno added, by believing that “problems can be solved with a gun.” The bishop observed that the young woman had been in a rehab community close to the Church, which also failed in its duty of helping the most vulnerable in the community.

“We are small, and perhaps we don’t have enough courage to go out to encounter the people who are most in need, as Pope Francis calls us to,” he added.

The Italian Bishops’ Conference, or CEI, took a stronger stance against the shooter, condemning his actions in no uncertain terms.

Speaking on Feb. 4, a date set aside by the Italian bishops as an annual “Day for Life,” Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of CEI, called for protection of the quality of life not only in the womb but also “in our cities, by fostering inclusion and security.”

“The episode in Macerata is a sign of a social unease born from insecurity and fear. It cannot be in any way justified, nor be underestimated in its objective gravity,” he said.

Despite public personalities denouncing the events and bloodshed in Macerata, a consistent portion of public opinion has expressed support for Traini. Recently in Rome, people wearing masks held up a banner reading “Honor to Luca Traini” near the city’s Olympic Stadium, which hosts popular Italian soccer matches, and posted a picture on social media gathering thousands of likes and comments.

Traini’s lawyer, Giancarlo Giulianelli, told local media outlets that his client has received many words of support and encouragement.

“Politically, there’s a problem. In Macerata, people stop me to give messages of solidarity with Luca [Traini],” he said on Monday. “It’s alarming, but it gives us a sense of what is happening.”

Giulianelli said that a psychiatrist will visit his client, and hinted that Traini had spoken about possibly having mental issues in the past, though he was never formally diagnosed.

In an interview with Italian news agency ANSA, the lawyer stated that Traini is only the “tip of the iceberg” of what is actually a deeper issue born from politicians’ inability to effectively address the immigrant situation.

“Politics hasn’t given an answer to the problem. The right has exploited it, the left has ignored and underestimated it,” he said.

After the shooting spree, Traini was seen doing a fascist salute and police found several white supremacist and far-right objects in his home, including a copy of Adolph Hitler’s autobiography  Mein Kampf.

The athletic 28-year-old Traini is a member of the populist, anti-immigrant movement Northern League, and even ran for local elections in 2017, although he only garnered a few hundred votes.

“I can’t wait to be elected to government and bring security, social justice and serenity back in all of Italy,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, which has been making significant gains in recent polls.

Though Salvini acknowledged that “whoever shoots is a delinquent, no matter what color your skin is,” he added that “it’s clear and evident that immigration that is out of control, an invasion such as the one that was organized, desired and financed in these years, leads to social conflict.”

In January, Northern League member Attilio Fontana aroused criticism when he framed the immigrant issue as a battle for survival between Italians and immigrants, and called citizens “to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race,” was going to resist what he perceived as an ongoing invasion.

While Italy’s leftist Democratic Party has urged “calm and responsibility,” and the left-wing anti-establishment Five Star Movement has insisted that Italians not be drawn into a political game surrounding the events in Macerata, Italy’s perennial master politician, former conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, seems to be swaying from one side to the other, perhaps testing the waters.

Berlusconi, leader and founder of the Forza Italia party in coalition with the Northern League, has downplayed the events in Macerata while still describing immigration as “a social bomb ready to explode,” and has confirmed his support for the deportation of over 600,000 immigrants living in Italy.

“Italians are not racist, we are hospitable,” Berlusconi said in a television interview, describing Traini as a “crazy man” and the exception rather than the norm.

Yet, a 2015 study found that Italy is the most racist country in Europe, especially toward Roma people (often called “Gypsies”) and Muslims. Up to 55 percent of Italians replied “yes” on whether some forms or racism could be justified, according to a November 2017 study by the European statistics group Swg.

A clear condemnation of those attitudes was tweeted out by the Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who described the shooting by Traini as “a voluntary attack on our fundamental values and an effort to destroy the fabric that binds us as Europeans.”

“It’s our duty to condemn this violence and the despicable ideology at its base,” he added. “Six people were the target of a shooting in Italy during the weekend because of the color of their skin, innocent victims of a violence caused by horrible racism and xenophobia.”

While anti-immigrant rhetoric has increased in Italy as elections draw near, the actual numbers of what is called the “migrant crisis” consistently have been going down. In Macerata, for example, official data from 2016 shows that the number of immigrants decreased by 4.9 percent since 2014.

The contradiction between a diminishing number of immigrants and growing racist sentiment has led some Italians to believe that the roots of racial tensions might be found elsewhere.

“These are grave facts, that require responsibility on different levels,” said Archbishop Gian Carlo Perego of Ferrara, general director of a CEI foundation on migration. Using terms such as “social bomb” to describe immigration, he said, evoking Berlusconi’s term, does nothing to help the country rise to the challenge that global diasporas present today.

“The way we speak, by giving in to certain interpretations and exacerbating certain events within the logic of a racially defined culture, clearly leads to the reemergence of certain phenomenon that were latent such as racism, which fortunately until today was not very evident on a cultural level,” Perego said.

“Especially, there is a risk that they feed a new form of do-it-yourself terrorism on our streets,” he added.