Respect (just a little bit)…

Those Italians were told to respect the police force not out of genuine admiration for (to give an example) their impeccable crime-busting abilities...

Heard the one about the Italians who came to Malta? No, not the Italians who wanted a “fock on the table” or “to piss on the plate”… I mean the ones who were recently conditionally discharged for three years, and fined 100 euros apiece, for the grave crime of ‘insulting the police’.

Yes, that’s right. ‘Insulting the police’ is a grave crime in Malta. So very grave, in fact, that apart from the above sentence, these Italians also got treated to a good old-fashioned Sunday sermon courtesy of Magistrate Aaron Bugeja.

“It is not acceptable to insult police officers, even though it may be acceptable in Italian culture,” he told them. He also warned the men they would “face a prison sentence if they spoke again like that to a police officer.”

What can I say? Sock it to them, Aaron. You show these pesky Italians what it means to be in a serious country for a change. You show ’em that here in Malta, the police take their crime-fighting responsibilities very seriously indeed… but only, it seems, when dealing with ‘crimes’ directed at themselves.

Crimes directed at others, on the other hand, tend to find themselves pushed steadily further down the list of police priorities (provided, of course, that such a list even exists). But hey, let’s not get lost in technicalities. The truly important thing, as this magistrate has so kindly illustrated for us, is that we should all ‘respect’ the police… regardless of whether they actually deserve to be respected or not.

I am sure you will have noticed that the type of ‘respect’ demanded in this case is in no way tied to the police’s own behaviour. It doesn’t depend on the police themselves performing their duties in a way that actually makes this country feel any safer, or anything like that. No indeed. Those Italians were told to respect the police force not out of genuine admiration for (to give an example) their impeccable crime-busting abilities … but simply because the alternative is a possible prison sentence.

In a sense this is not too surprising. After all, the police’s crime-busting abilities are not often in very great evidence… unless, of course, the ‘crime’ being investigated involves deflating an individual policeman’s ego (in which case, our previously invisible police force suddenly transforms into the Ferguson riot squad under the command of Inspector Chuck Norris).

Consider, for instance, how a gang of “foreign” burglars somehow managed to terrorise the entire town of Sliema for weeks on end, without ever being identified or apprehended… and then promptly moved on to another town, where they continue to terrorise the inhabitants, unimpeded, to this day.

One assumes, of course, that after all the chosen residences in this new locality will have been duly ransacked and burgled, the same gang of delinquents will simply transfer their attention elsewhere and make clean sweeps of other towns, too. And who can blame them? They know – just from reading the newspapers – that as long as they don’t insult any police officers in the course of their activities, the chances of them ever facing criminal charges in court are next to nil.

But of course, if anyone shows disrespect to the same police who have proved manifestly useless in tackling this particular crime-wave, and many others too… they will be threatened with prison by a magistrate.

I was about to say that this constitutes a new definition of the word ‘respect’. But then I realised that it isn’t exactly all that ‘new’. Ironically, the Italians are perhaps the best positioned to appreciate this: Italy is after all no stranger to ‘respect’ being exacted out of fear of reprisal. It is roughly the same form of ‘respect’ that one associates with the Mafia: show us ‘respect’, or we’ll burn down your shop, murder your relatives, and/or stick the remains of a mutilated racehorse in your bed...

But let’s go back to the grave crime of insulting the police. An isolated incident, you say? Not quite. In recent months and weeks there has been a marked increase in criminal action taken over very similar offences. Some months back, the police charged a man in court with ‘assaulting and slightly injuring a police officer’… and the prosecuting inspector asked the court to deny the suspect bail, so that “maybe people will learn not to treat police like rubbish”.

Naturally the magistrate upheld this patently absurd request… thereby ‘punishing’ a criminal suspect before his case was even heard, still less his guilt established.

Admittedly such cases do not always go the police’s way. Last July, two Swedish women of Chilean extraction found themselves charged in court… this time for brushing against a police officer’s face with their flag (the incident took place halfway through the World Cup).

It transpired that the two women in question were also strip searched in the course of the police ‘investigation’, in blatant breach of the police’s own guidelines for strip-searching suspects. Magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona agreed with their assessment that this was ‘unacceptable’ (by a hugely interesting coincidence, the same word used by magistrate Bugeja in the Italian case), and declared that the police officers who had so blatantly abused their position of authority were “unworthy of their uniforms”.

Yet fast-forward just a couple of months, and we now have a different magistrate sending out the clean opposite signal from the bench of the same court. Not just once, but multiple times.

The same magistrate Aaron Bugeja also presided over last week’s truly shocking case in which a 28-year-old Khazakh woman was arrested and hauled before the courts for dancing in a bikini during a street march of the feast of Stella Maris, in my own home town of Sliema.

As you can imagine, onlookers were deeply shocked and disturbed to see someone indulging in a little drunk and disorderly behaviour during a village feast. That sort of thing has simply never happened before, in the entire history of the Maltese festa. Dancing practically naked in a drunken state before the statue of Our Lady? Unheard of. It had to be a foreigner, of course, to break a millennial tradition of always behaving with 100% sobriety and utmost decorum at all such events…

And if – like me – you seem to vaguely remember similar incidents from other festas… well, clearly you must have been hallucinating. I, for instance, have very clear childhood memories of watching the ground fireworks from a rooftop during the feast of Hal Safi. What I remember most was not the actual fireworks display itself. It was the sight of a large group of men (the fireworks makers, it later transpired), dancing blind drunk right underneath the spinning and whizzing wheels of flame: at one point, collectively pulling down their shorts and exposing their bare buttocks to a rain of multi-coloured sparks, while chanting obscenities directed at other fireworks makers in other parishes.

But of course, that didn’t really happen. For if it did, and a foreign woman now gets arrested for so very much less… what would that tell us about the truly absurd double standards of justice in our country? So no, clearly I must have imagined the whole thing. Just as you clearly imagined that god-awful street fight you once witnessed – full of swearing and inconceivable obscenities – at the last village festa you went to, where two band clubs competed for right of way through the same street at the same time.

In any case: the Khazakhi incident at the feast of Stella Maris also illustrated that it is not just the police who take a singularly one-sided view of insulting or inappropriate behaviour. ‘Disrupting a religious service’ also turns out to be a crime in Malta, punishable by up to a year in prison.

Of course, it doesn’t work the other way around. Religious services are free to disrupt all other activities on the island as much as they like… sometimes very literally. It is perfectly normal, for instance, for important arterial roads to be closed down for an entire weekend, just to accommodate a ‘marc brijjuz’ or the ubiquitous fireworks display… even if these roads lead directly to the country’s only general hospital, as is the case with the Msida festa.

Oh, and as for fireworks themselves…those are entirely free to disrupt the sleeping patterns of everyone and (literally) his dog within a radius of 10 miles: including patients at the aforementioned hospital, as well as the elderly, the infirm, the very young, the very insomniac… not to mention the plain old ‘fed-up-to-the-back-teeth’ category, which also includes yours truly.

Religious occasions clearly benefit from a dispensation which allows them to be as thoroughly annoying and sometimes downright insulting as they please… without ever being asked to curb their increasingly anti-social excesses. But then, one drunk foreign woman goes off the rails and has a bit of a romp at the expense of ‘Our Lady, Star of the Sea’… and in rush the police force to haul her to court for the grave crime of ‘disrupting a religious service’.

What is that, exactly, if not the same Mafia version of ‘respect’ at work again? Clearly, it is not a case of ‘respect our traditions because they are, in themselves, worthy of respect’. More like a simple case of:

“Respect our traditions… OR ELSE”.

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