A misconception of truly ‘Ġgantic’ proportions...

They’re being ‘strong with the weak, and weak with the strong’. As bloody usual...

There has been a lot of talk, recently, about how ‘popular perceptions’ do not always conform to the corresponding ‘realities on the ground’.

And while it’s not the example that I primarily intended to tackle, with this article – that would be the one about ‘Ġgantija Temples; and the recent vandalism thereof’ (to which I shall return shortly, promise) – it does remain the best example of the lot, by far.

So before singling out anyone, specific crime: let’s start with our popular perceptions of... well, ‘crime’ itself, in general.

Like most other people in this country – according, at any rate, to MaltaToday’s latest survey – I, too, happen to be under this vague impression that crime (especially, violent crime) is ‘on the increase’, throughout Malta and Gozo.

Not, mind you, that I actually participated in that survey, myself: but if someone had called me, around two or three weeks ago; and asked me, over the phone, whether I felt that the Maltese islands were becoming a ‘more, or less, dangerous place to live’...

... there can no doubt about it, really. My answer would most certainly have been ‘MORE dangerous’ (and I’d probably have added: ‘and by quite a lot, too!’)

Now: I’ll try not to waste too much time questioning why I STILL happen to feel that way, even as we speak (i.e., after indisputable evidence has emerged – in the form of official crime statistics for Malta and Gozo – which seems to point in the clean opposite direction).

But in my own case, at least: it might have something to do with the fact that Pelin Kaya was killed just literally 200 metres down the road from where I live (whilst crossing the same street that I myself traverse, at least three or four times a day, every single day of the week.)

And that also brings with it the (admittedly irrational) sensation that – to all intents and purposes – that same ghastly murder could just as easily have been committed ‘right on my own doorstep’, as it were... if not actually ‘right here: inside MY OWN HOME(!!!)’

And let’s face it: that’s not exactly a very encouraging thought, is it now? It’s hardly what you would call ‘conducive’, to any ‘popular perception’ that your neighbourhood may actually be getting SAFER, than it ever was before (instead of ‘infinitely more dangerous’: which is how it undeniably still feels, in spite of all that aforementioned ‘evidence’)...

And yet, as criminologist Prof. Saviour Formosa patiently explained to me, when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago: those official statistics do indeed paint a somewhat more ‘reassuring’ picture, of the reality on the ground.

Not only has the national crime-rate actually fallen, over the last 20 years: “from 45 crimes per 1000 persons in 2004 […] to 28 crimes per 1000 persons in 2022; the lowest on record”... but ‘violent crimes’ (and ‘homicide’, in particular) seem to also have declined just as significantly, over the same time period.

Naturally, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that information actually makes you feel any ‘safer’, or not, in your own particular neighbourhood. [For my own part: I must confess that it does little to dispel the lingering feeling of ‘unease’ that I still experience, to this day, when thinking about the murder of Pelin Kaya; and other, equally upsetting crimes...]

But on one thing, at least, I think we can all safely agree. Those otherwise ‘cold, clinical’ statistics certainly DO help inject a little much-needed perspective, into any argument based on ‘popular perceptions’ alone.

As such, I find myself concurring with Prof. Formosa, when he argues that: “the reactions of shock and horror [to the Pelin Kaya murder] were entirely justified… when looking at that case, in isolation. At the same time, however: you cannot conclude – on the basis of that one case, alone – that ‘murder is going up, across the board’.”

I need hardly add, of course, that the same reasoning applies to ALL cases where our popular perceptions may be a little ‘skewed’... like, for instance, the issue that I all along intended to write about, today: which involves a certain little incident, where “an 18-year-old Italian student, visiting Gozo’s historic Ġgantija temples, was caught etching his initials on one of the main doorways of the Neolithic monument...”

Actually, the rest of the article is short enough to be (almost) reproduced here in full: “The student was visiting the site as part of a school trip, and was caught in the act by a security guard. The police were immediately summoned on site, and [the student] was arraigned during an urgent session of the Gozo Court held yesterday, where he admitted to the charges brought against him.

“He was sentenced to two years imprisonment suspended for four years, which is the maximum period permitted by law, and to a fine of €15,000.”

Now: as with the previous example, I am reluctant to delve too deeply into the actual incident, itself... and for much the same reason, too. Then as now, I find myself torn between two ‘conflicting emotions’. Part of me certainly shares in the general reaction of ‘outrage’, that is perhaps best epitomised by the following online comment: “I would have thrown him in prison, too, to get his backside etched!”

... but another part of me also sympathises with the more ‘humane’ (and certainly, less ‘intrusive’) view that: “Isn't this a bit excessive against a teenager doing what teenagers do? He should be fined the cost to repair the damage, but 15k seems a bit much to me. That’s a lot of money for the average 18-year-old [...]”

So instead of commenting directly about this case, myself: I will merely invite you to consider how many of our other popular perceptions also seem to be ‘contradicted’, by the facts contained in those few short sentences, above.

For instance: the popular perception that ‘Maltese institutions’ – and ‘the law courts’, in particular – tend to be ‘slow and cumbersome’...

... even though – if the above details are accurate, anyway – the machinery of Maltese justice seems to have moved with positively ‘lightning speed’, on this particular occasion: almost as fast, in fact, as the ‘tonne of bricks’ that so emphatically landed on that hapless Italian teenager’s head... as a result of what can only be described as the ‘speediest court decision, in the entire history of Maltese (and Gozitan) jurisprudence’.

Seriously, though: not only was the culprit himself literally ‘caught red-handed’... but he was also ‘arrested’, ‘charged’, ‘tried’, and eventually ‘convicted’, in arguably less time than it would have taken him to actually finish etching those darn initials of his, on that same Ġgantija monolith.

And this, in turn, forces us to re-valuate yet another ‘popular perception’ about our own country: the widely-held belief that we – the Maltese people – simply do not ‘value’ or ‘cherish’ our own cultural heritage enough, to even afford it any real ‘protection’ in the first place.

In fact, just a couple of years ago – in April 2020, to be precise – the Chamber of Architects had issued a stark warning to the effect that: “Malta risks losing its historical and artistic patrimony to large-scale construction projects”...

... and among those ‘large-scale projects’, which pose a direct ‘danger’ to Malta’s priceless cultural heritage: there happens to be at least one application to build a “three-storey, 22-apartment block” – complete with “20 garages at basement level” – less than 200 metres away from the same Ġgantija Temples, themselves...

... in other words: slap-bang in the middle of the UNESCO buffer-zone, of the self-same ‘priceless national heritage monument’, that the Maltese authorities were so very quick to ‘protect’, last week: when it was threatened by the immature actions of a single, solitary, Italian teenager (who, let’s face it, must also have been a particularly ‘dim-witted’ specimen, at that...)

Meanwhile, it bears repeating that the damage that this proposed development would certainly cause to Ġgantija Temples, if the permit is actually granted – a decision which, incidentally, has yet to be taken by the Planning Authority Board – would far outweigh any number of (admittedly appalling) ‘disfigurements’, inflicted upon those same stones by the occasional random ‘juvenile delinquent’, here and there.

According to Cambridge archaeologist Dr Simon Stoddard – who has worked extensively on Malta’s megalithic temples, over the past 30 years – “not only would the proposed development be roughly the same height above sea level as Ġgantija; but the deep nutritious soil deposits around the front of the development will be utterly destroyed.”

This, he added, “would most likely result in the loss of invaluable archaeological information”; with other objectors – including NGOs like ‘Flimkien Għal-Ambjent Ahjar’; and photographers like Daniel Cilia – also arguing that future approval of this ‘monstrosity’ may even come at the cost of Ġgantija’s own status as a ‘UNESCO World Heritage site’, no less...

And yet, not only have the Maltese authorities so far failed to even lift a single, solitary finger, to prevent this ‘sacrilege’ from taking place... but, by failing to throw that application clean out of the window (as it so clearly should have, when it was originally received), the Planning Authority is clearly imparting the message that...

... no, actually. In this case, at least, there is no real ‘contradiction’ between our popular perceptions, and the ‘reality on the ground’. So if we all still somehow feel – in spite of all the apparent ‘evidence’ to the contrary – that the local authorities are NOT, in fact, ‘doing enough to protect our cultural heritage from vandalism’...

... it’s only because it’s perfectly true, at the end of the day. They’re not. All the local authorities are REALLY doing, by coming down so heavily on that (I won’t go as far as to say ‘poor’; but I will certainly say ‘unfortunate’) ‘little Italian brat’, is... well, the only thing they’ve ever done, when faced with ‘threats to Malta’s cultural heritage.’

They’re being ‘strong with the weak, and weak with the strong’. As bloody usual...