It started escalating when the suspicion of corruption at the highest level of government was confirmed by Daphne Caruana Galizia’s stories and then the Panama Papers. The toxicity, the tension and the poisoned environment have only got worse and in the last six months they have spun in an unpredictable vortex that may carry us to a place none of us want to go.
This poisoned brew has 10 ingredients.
Firstly, an adept audience for mind control. Thirty years of partisan media have created a willing and welcoming enthusiasm for spin, even outright lies in the transmission of information. The PN is not completely innocent of this but over the decades its hesitation to cross lines and an element of its support it did not want to alienate with blatant spin have caused restraint and a therefore weaker relationship with its audiences than Labour’s TV has with its own.
Secondly, and in extension from the first, all TV news sources which still amount, for the great bulk of the population, to the sole source of information on domestic affairs, have developed a consensus to relegate inconvenient information as unimportant. Net, One and TVM agree, with or without conspiracy, to trivialise issues of corruption and the breakdown of rule of law in the country and feed their viewers a soporific view of mindless optimism: sleeping pills for happy driving.
Thirdly, a manifest escalation of the dehumanisation of the other that has been ironically normalised once there was no longer Daphne Caruana Galizia to bear the brunt of its targeting. Facebook trolling used to be about frustrating discourse and rationality. Those breezy days are gone. The keyboard armies now are there to intimidate and hurt. The language being used is harsher than ever before. Dissenters are no longer accused of bias, wearing political blinkers, even, flatteringly, inconsistent and hypocritical. That polite conversation is over. Now they’re called cockroaches, vermin, rats, and, predictably, if the targets are women, witches and whores. Caruana Galizia would have reminded us she’d had that for 30 years. But her borrowed robes fit uncomfortably on their many new wearers.
Fourthly, the realisation, at least for some, that organised crime has crept up on us and is now entwined in our reality like a tumour too large to cut off without dying in the process. Mafie under multiple competing bosses have penetrated major industries turning our clean living into the laundry of their filth. Oil bunkering and trading, online gambling, financial services: all are tainted to some extent. Repeatedly scalded by this experience we cower as new industries pop up bringing doubt and hidden shadows: the trading of money that is not really money and the cultivation of psychoactive vegetation ostensibly not intended to facilitate philosophical thinking.
It may not be predetermined that we will face more violence but none of this is an obvious conduit to resolution, let alone reconciliation
Fifthly, and descending from the fourth, the inevitable suspicion of some measure of complicity, witting or unwitting, a product of malice or merely of neglect, of institutions designed to block organised crime, not aid it. Regulators and administrators profess ignorance of organised crime; law enforcement agencies do not pick up the phone when their overseas colleagues call to warn them; political power is enthusiastically friendly with the smiling gents wanted for serious crimes by other countries, wedding invitations and all.
Sixthly, it is painfully clear that the law is not equal for all. As the now retired Chief Justice put it, when the rule of law fails, we must suffer the rule of delinquents. The delinquents who find a way of building where they want when they want to; to acquire public land for absurd prices and turn it into personal profit; to negotiate blanket exemptions from rules because they have access to decision makers who owe them their jobs. In a society where people stop believing the law will protect them, it is inevitable some will seek to find ways of protecting themselves.
Seventhly, a politicised and mistrusted police force led by a police chief who inspires confidence in no one and propped up by rapidly promoted senior officers whose credentials include being married to a government minister who classified social order in mafia terms: “Dawk m’hux tal-familja tagħna; dawk sriep” (they [non-Labourites] are vipers from outside our family). As senior police officers ignore evidence placed in front of them if action would inconvenience their political officers; as criminals are recruited to the corps to conduct their private activities in blue; as suspicious relationships between policemen and the underworld come out in the open, who will trust the police to protect them when things get worse?
Eighthly, political figures call for vigilante action outside the legal framework when it is politically desirable to do so. Officials of government encourage people to wipe out a memorial in Valletta because it is an intolerable act of protest that offends them. State authorities lead by example censoring posters and billboards on flimsy legal pretexts but driven by political needs of the regime. The Prime Minister himself responds to journalistic investigations and political pressure from outside the country by rounding up mobs of screaming zealots, settling argument and evidence with loud music, alcohol and plagiarised T-shirt designs.
Ninthly, the institution of hegemonic thinking aided by the parliamentary Opposition’s pathological fear of opposing, the silence of authorities who should know better, starting with academics and leaders of workers and businesses, and mandarins carried away by the official story who lock up their own better judgement to go with the flow – a penny for you if you’re not thinking of Martin Scicluna. For those not volunteering their neutrality or compliance, there is the standard treatment for any form of departure from the State-sanctioned dogmas: criticism in the international press is the poisoned fruit of envy; members of the European Parliament speak the way they do because they are biased and maliciously briefed; the Archbishop is a closet Nazzjonalist; and protesters are seditionists, traitors, holier than thou hypocrites.
Tenthly, a general suspension of a value system that lies outside individual interest in a space of common good. Age-old ethical dilemmas – surrogacy and forced embryo donation are the philosophical paradoxés du jour – are resolved in Parliament as quick as a loud sneeze to ensure the country has something to talk about which is not the corruption of legislators. Gambling, paid sex with strangers, drugs and money of untraceable origins pump our wellbeing. Politicians get caught with their hand in the till and their embarrassed grins are mistaken for evidence of innocence. A pervasive indifference to ecological responsibilities has taken root as we stop looking at the emissions we generate, the footprint of our construction, the cancer factories that remain in business and the dust that practically blinds us. When was the last time you heard a local politician talk of climate change?
In the caldron is the toil and trouble of conflict. It may not be predetermined that we will face more violence but none of this is an obvious conduit to resolution, let alone reconciliation. Take a step back and look around you. You should realise, with horror, that you have seen this awful thing before.
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