Watching Friday’s extraordinary press conference by Prime Minister Robert Abela, one could not help but appreciate the painful sensitivity of the present situation in Malta. During his address, the prime minister targeted an NGO and the opposition MP who serves as its lawyer, for their decision to call for a criminal investigation into himself, the AFM brigadier and crew members of patrol boat P52.

In these weeks of social distancing, Abela felt the urgent need to mass his ministers because their presence stamped an imprimatur on the prime minister’s protestations of innocence.

By their choice to declare the nation’s ports unsafe and excuse Malta from its international obligations to save vulnerable lives in Maltese waters, the civil society NGO directly linked the government’s decision to the deaths of at least five people at sea. Meanwhile, survivors have been taken back to Libya, possibly to face further inhumane treatment.

Knowing the consequences of his actions, the prime minister maintains the righteousness of his behaviour. Throughout the press conference, Abela’s indignant tone shifted the tragedy of preventable deaths to a chest-thumping display of how hard he and his team are working to control the viral outbreak.

Abela’s indignant tone shifted the tragedy of preventable deaths to a chest-thumping display of how hard he and his team are working to control the viral outbreak

How dare their important work be interrupted, the implication follows, by something as amorphous and seemingly arbitrary as fundamental human rights?

What the press conference effectively did, intentionally or not, is mask the inherent asymmetry of power at play throughout this crisis. The disparity between the prime minister and NGO, and ultimately, between the government and the migrant community, is obfuscated by a narrative of blame that warps the entire political scene in Malta. In their absence from view, and the “unmournability” of these missing lives, the migrant is once again positioned as the ideal scapegoat for Malta’s emerging economic calamities.

The fact this positioning comes from the highest office of government is a cause for considerable concern.

It is in the nature of scapegoating, as argued by the late French theorist of violence René Girard, that the target is not chosen because it is in any way responsible for social unrest. If the target does happen to be at all responsible, that is incidental. The scapegoat is instead chosen because it is easy to victimise without fear of retaliation.

When one might expect the economically anxious to lash out at elites, whose decisions are actively shaping our economic fortunes, the public’s attack is shifted to migrants and minorities. The elites cannot be effective scapegoats, since a defining feature of scapegoating is to concentrate violence onto a small, powerless set of victims.

Therefore, dangerous chain reactions of reprisals are avoided and blame can be apportioned freely.

The press conference highlighted Abela’s lack of experience and the ease with which he wields a dangerous narrative empowered by populist sympathisers. Is it possible that the conference statements were oblivious to their ulterior effects? Fanning the flames of racism and triggering a more insidious process of scapegoating, among an already precarious migrant population in Malta.

Every racist comment on social media and every message supporting the cabinet and the prime minister for their decision to put the lives of migrating people at high risk, are effectively giving assent to this problematic status quo.

While the prime minister calls foul play, stating there are some people who want to see him serve “life in prison and compromise the nation’s ‘battle’ against the virus”, it is a fact that five people died at sea in Maltese waters. Their blood is on our hands as a nation and the cycle of scapegoating continues unabated.

Of course, identifying the active process is no consolation to the scapegoat. For them, as for us, the only hope is that society may one day have less cause for political games that eventually trade in death or violence.

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