When the story of our time is told, they won’t be talking much about the great architectural feats of the towers on St George’s Bay or the prosperity on the back of sold passports. They will be writing about us going out to dinner while people drown at sea.
In 1996 Daniel Goldhagen took a fresh look at the worst crime of human history — the mass murder of the Jews in the middle of the last century in the heart of Christian and civilised Europe — and instead of focusing on the classic monsters with the skull and bones peaked caps, he focused on the little old lady who told on her neighbours so they could be collected and put on a train east.
His point, documented academically and so humanly overwhelming, is that a combination of a bureacratic, modern, industrialised state and a population that can dehumanise other human beings to the point of utter indifference is a deadly combination. He called that little old lady, and the train driver, and the lowly conscript guarding the gates Hitler’s willing executioners.
I’ve made this comparison before with the situation in our waters and I usually get flak for it, not all of it unjustified. Using the Holocaust as a comparison for anything risks trivialising the Holocaust and place it as but another ugly page in a book of many ugly pages. But then refusing to draw lessons from that experience even to the limited extent that situations are comparable risks denying ourselves the only benefit from the knowledge of that crime, the ability to prevent ourselves repeating it.
Specifically the dehumanising indifference to the plight of people at sea, allowing us to go on with our lives as if nothing is happening is the one lesson that I argue should be drawn.
Consider the similarities.
Firstly, the severance of any possible shared experience between us here on land and them who come at sea. In the Maltese language you still hear an old racist idiom used in situations of minimal disadvantage. I have two pies to share between three children. I ask, teasing, who’s not having any? “Mela jien iswed?,” asked the unlucky one. (‘Am I the black one?’)
Often people don’t realise just how wrong that is. “Twieled Tork”. “Għawdxi tajjeb, aħarqu”. You won’t often find these used in polite conversation, but they’re not the abominations they should be either.
In the case of sub-Saharan Africans, the otherness perceived locally here is almost complete. Understandably we anthropomorphise animals and intuitively endow them with rights that are an extension of our sympathy. “Qas kelb ma trid tara barra f’dan it-temp”. A drowning dog is a source of pain and a dog saved from drowning is a matter of collective relief and appreciation of a shared humanity.
The comparison with dogs and other sympathetic animals is a stretch of an argument. Sticking to humans there are strands of solidarity within the country that are unbreakable if often buried deep. Our conflicts, tribal disagreements and political cleavages are profound. But not deep enough to overcome the sympathy of shared experience. If you witness a car accident you don’t ask the victim if they belong to your party, or if they are church-goers, or whether they’re pro-choice or pro-life before giving succour.
Across all other divides, we live in a community of shared experiences with people who share our language, and even people who don’t. The qualifying limit is often skin colour but it’s not as straight forward and simple as that. There are shades of complexity of who is allowed in and who is left out from the realm of broad collective sympathy. Sub-Saharan Africans are the last in the queue.
That allows people to suspend their intuitions in respect of migrants and their motivations. Few things are more humanly universal than a mother’s love of her children. We anthropomorphise with ease animals who take care of their young recognising the instinct in dogs and cats, even birds, as similar to the boundless commitment we expect of any human mother for her child. Russians love their children too, the song said reminding Cold War paranoids that on the other side there be humans.
But Sub-Saharan African mothers are outside the community of sympathy. They don’t love their children. If they travel across desert and sea pregnant it’s to exploit their children and the frailty of Christian sympathy. If they carry their children from their homes in Africa to bring them here, it must be because they don’t love them.
In everyone we recognise the wish to do well for themselves and their children. We think of migrants who settled in America and Australia and the UK as pioneers who long for the mother country but thought of the needs of their children first.
But the place of Sub-Saharan Africans is in Sub-Saharan Africa. And when they leave their place, they ought not to hope to avoid tragedy. They get what they deserve, like escape convicts from a prison who should not complain for being shot on sight if found outside.
Within our community of sympathy we admire industry, risk-taking, hard work and determination to improve one’s lot. We are egalitarian in that respect. We have no caste system or a feudal hierarchy where we speak of upstarts and people not knowing their place when we see the poor strive to climb out of their state and defying their fate.
Outside our community of sympathy black people must accept their lot in life. If they don’t they must face a worse fate.
“Lanqas kelb ma trid tara barra”. ‘Imma iswed ma jimpurtax’.
A second similarity: legitimisation by legalised bureacracy. Deadly prejudice against Jews was not conjured out of nothing in 1933. Prejudice was handed down for generations over a thousand years and relied on old myths and fears grounded in slander and sanitised by legend. Nor was violence against the Jews by any stretch a new phenomenon.
But what cleaned out and structured that worst of crimes is the adoption of those vile prejudices into antiseptic law and implemented with efficiency and systematic single-mindedness like any mass public policy, such as military mobilisation or mass transportation.
That anodyne formalisation absolved people of their consciences, allowing them to surface their prejudices without regret. If the State is doing it, it becomes my civic duty to assist it. I don’t even have to examine whether it’s right or wrong. In the meantime the vermin is removed.
It’s like governments hiring hunters to cull some feral animals who have outgrown the local agriculture. License to kill.
Matteo Salvini’s government is doing this for everyone. In setting the lowest standard in this hemisphere for the treatment of Sub-Saharan Africans who cannot get a visa to come to Europe, he is smothering in the guise of law, any pangs of guilt that people my have about turning their back on a screaming child swallowed by the sea.
The Italian government is not only soothing the conscience of Italians who consider Sub-Saharan Africans as outside their community of sympathy. It is soothing the conscience of other governments as well.
Closing ports is an act of law. Arresting ships that rescue people from drowning is an act of law. Denying re-entry to ships that have rescued people from drowning is an act of law.
It is against any form of natural justice and human decency but it is the law. The notion that you must ‘always obey the law’ is what made the Nuremberg laws of 1935 work. If the State says it’s ok to round up people and strip them of their right, then surely that must be right.
If the State leaves migrants bobbing at sea waiting to die, then it must be the right thing to do.
There’s that deadly combination again.
Consider how Times of Malta this morning noticed how the Maltese government turned on the Italian government and parried Matteo Salvini’s taunts of a few days ago, challenging him to allow in a waiting boat of migrants in danger of threatening weather.
It was also a parry on a situation with reversed roles over the Christmas period when Italy egged Malta to allow migrants stuck outside its harbour to be brought in.
Something happened in between those incidents that that report does not mention. Over a hundred migrants drowned in an identical situation but without the benefit of a rescue ship close enough to fish them out of the freezing water.
Matteo Salvini calls rescue NGOs “traffickers”. Which is odd because basically he’s accusing them of being a private interest fulfilling a public role. He’s not entirely mistaken in that respect except private interests have to fulfill the public role of saving lives at sea because governments won’t.
Back to the legitimisation by State action (or failure to act) again.
But it’s a symbiotic reality. The State can act in a way that allows human beings to die because the population does not consider them as human beings to a full effect. But the population does not consider them as human beings to a full effect also because, along with other reasons, the State acts in a way that allows human beings to die.
Now I wrote this and now you read it, we can go back to ignore the fact that people at sea are now waiting to die while we talk. People? Africans.