In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, the opening scene depicts Buonasera, the undertaker. Don Corleone’s daughter is getting married and he is in a generous mood. Buonasera asks the Godfather for justice for his own daughter, justice the legal system denied him. In return, Corleone does not ask for money. He demands “friendship”.

Buonasera proves himself worthy to receive the Don’s favour by pledging loyalty. “There will come a time when I will call on your loyalty,” Don Vito explains, granting Buonasera the favour.

Robert Abela receives a cystic fibrosis sufferer. Her father requested justice for his daughter. Life had been unjust to her. Abela is in a generous mood. He does not ask for money. He demands “friendship”.

The family earns the favour by giving loyalty. “Thank you for your sensitivity in feeling the pulse of our needs,” the daughter proclaims. The time for Abela to claim loyalty has arrived and will continue to arrive.

The generosity is false. The “friendship” is not true friendship. This is a perversion of true values where “friendship” precedes justice, justice subsumed by “friendship”.

Ford Coppola’s vivid depiction of Corleone’s corrupted values accurately portrays Malta’s value system – tribal. Evarist Bartolo put it succinctly: “the rule of the family is stronger than the rule of law”.

Malta’s idea of justice echoes Polemarchus’s in Plato’s Republic: “Hurting one’s enemies, helping one’s friends.”

Socrates refutes this idea of justice, Malta does not. For Socrates, justice must precede friendship – and that requires treating friends and enemies equally. That’s the rule of law – impersonal, institutionalised justice. Malta, however, looks at faces – and grants immunity to tribe members.

Tribal values are deeply entrenched in the Maltese psyche. The insidious patronage system is founded on the profane interpretation of Catholic traditions. Each town and village declares its loyalty to its patron saint, whose intervention is elicited through candles, flowers and donations. Some villages, with two patron saints, are split down the middle with blind devotion to one and outright hostility and aggression to the other, manifested as provocation, vile offence and physical violence towards the ‘others’.

The reprehensible attacks are justified and condoned by one camp and condemned by the other. The same applies in politics.

The generosity of Don Vito and Robert Abela is false generosity which tramples the principles of democracy and justice. It is abuse of power- Kevin Cassar

The Church’s efforts to defuse animosity have had modest impact on such tribalism. For decades, the Church itself has put “friendship” before justice. The protection of abusers of innocents within its ranks remains an indelible stain. The Church teaches by example: when one of your own commits heinous crimes, forget justice. The Church embraces the mob’s values: omertà.

Ironically, nobody has taken that lesson more to heart than the Church’s perennial enemy, the Labour Party. When Toni Abela discovered hard drugs in his party club it was not justice he sought. He did not report the case, not even to a friendly Labour cop. He protected the culprits.

When Ian Borg was condemned by the court for exploiting a mentally ill villager or when Rosianne Cutajar collected bagfuls of cash from an alleged money launderer and murder mastermind, Abela chose “friendship”.

Even when il-Koħħu described his minister’s involvement in a “big job”, Abela still chose ‘friendship’.

As Keith Schembri is accused of money laundering, corruption, perjury and fraud, Abela still shields him. No condemnation, no apology, no cate­gorical denunciation. Friendship trumps justice every time.

As more revolting revelations emerge about Johann Buttigieg and Joseph Cuschieri, and their conniving with Yorgen Fenech, Abela still defends them. Joseph Muscat protected his friends Schembri, Konrad Mizzi, Brian Tonna and Adrian Hillman till the end.

The message is clear. No matter how shameless, evil, corrupt and criminal your actions, you will be protected – you are one of us. ‘Friendship’ first. Omertà or in Labourspeak, għaqda (unity).

That message has reached the nation. Witness the long queues in a narrow street in Birkirkara outside Edward Zammit Lewis’ office. For hours, they wait their turn for an audience with ‘Don Corleone’… to ask a favour. And for him to shower his grace, his generosity, in return for loyalty.

Many such audiences happen in the dark district offices of ministers and parliamentary secretaries. If citizens have a right to what they beg Zammit Lewis and Abela for, they should not be pleading for it. They should not have to sell their soul and pledge their loyalty like Buonasera.

If they have no right to it and are asking for it, it is because they know the prime minister, the minister, the godfather will grant it anyway. And the less they have a right to it, the greater their loyalty.

Of course, it’s not just Labour that is at it. Bernard Grech praised Pierre Paul Portelli, chief, for resigning quietly. Portelli conspired with Fenech to damage his own party, his own MPs, his own youth wing.

But Grech protects Portelli, despite his vile treachery. Portelli remains part of the tribe, a made man and,  therefore, protected. Grech applies the same code of silence, omertà, as Muscat and Abela do.

The “friendship” of the mob is not true friendship. It is extortion for personal gain: wealth, power or both.

The loyalty of Buonasera is not true loyalty. It is born of necessity and offered under duress. The generosity of Don Vito and Robert Abela is false generosity which tramples the principles of democracy and justice. It is abuse of power.

What the state should provide as its duty to all citizens is distorted into grace, showered on members of the tribe by a benevolent prime minister, minister, mobster. The population expects it, knows it and enables it.

The prime minister feels no shame when he reminds us what the cystic fibrosis sufferer told him: “My life is in your hands.” Our lives are in his hands.

And that suits him fine. Like Don Corleone, he protects only the life of members of the tribe. The lives of others are expendable.

Friendship before justice – values fit for a criminal organisation. And a criminal country.

Kevin Cassar is a professor of surgery and former PN candidate.

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