The new year in Malta started with a barbaric murder that shook society to the core. A 29-year-old woman was raped and murdered in one of Malta’s most popular pedestrian spots. Unlike other murders, police investigations suggest that the aggressor did not know his victim. Random murders in Malta are hard to come by, so it is no wonder that this crime has dominated the public discourse.
When faced with such an act, it is natural for people to try to make sense of it and understand what caused it.
Some suggested the alleged perpetrator’s mental health was to blame. Some suggested it was due to drug abuse. Others blamed his upbringing and the company he kept. Some even blamed his gender.
The truth, as is often the case, is probably more nuanced, multi-faceted and complex. The alleged perpetrator has yet to be charged, let alone tried. It is too soon speak with certainty about this horrific event. As sociologist Albert Bell wrote: the “aetiology of violent crime entails multifarious bio-pyscho-social factors, from genetic factors to childhood trauma, serious psychiatric disorders to myriad social contingencies. It is rarely a case of one singular factor but a nefarious cocktail that builds up gradually and is eventually unleashed with disastrous consequences for the victims of such crime.”
We also need to distinguish between coordinated plots to commit a crime to lone actions sparked in undecipherable minds. And that is why the most important thing is to ensure the police, the courts, the social and mental health authorities are resourced well-enough to keep tabs on potential trouble-makers, rapists, murderers…
Vigilance and early detection, giving training to frontliners and the police corps, as well as professional criminal profiling are essential to try to prevent such crimes. It is important to know that the police are studying the aggressor’s connections with the cult group River of Love. It is a known secret that many who seek such extreme groups are vulnerable individuals who are drawn by the charisma of so-called pastors. But it would be a mistake for people to solely pin the murderer’s actions on River of Love.
Vigilance and early detection, giving training to frontliners and the police corps, as well as professional criminal profiling are essential to try to prevent such crimes
Of course, we must also look at the patriarchal structure of our society, which remains imbued in many of us. Though there have been noticeable improvements in the last years, misogyny remains a problem across the country.
It was comforting to see men and women of all ages, of all nationalities, unite in hoping for a better society, free from fear
It is inexcusable to hear young women talk about being afraid to walk in the streets alone, for fear of attracting attention or even being harassed. It is also undeniable that it is women who are, overwhelmingly, the victims of such assaults. It is legitimate to ask whether the perpetrator in this case would have done what he did had he found a man, rather than Paulina Dembska, in Sliema that morning.
We also cannot underestimate the impact that social media is having on today’s youths. The misuse of digital communication continues to lead to crimes and bullying in society. Let us not forget that studies are already showing that COVID-induced isolation, coupled with too much exposure to social media, is leading to mental health problems that could last for years.
The only silver lining from this heinous crime is that it has mobilised society, to the extent that hundreds showed up to pay their respects to Dembska in Sliema last Tuesday. It was comforting to see men and women of all ages, of all nationalities, unite in hoping for a better society, free from fear. We can never eradicate the problem. But together, we can certainly help reduce it.