The curious incident of the cat in the daytime...

‘Instant judgments’ keep coming thick and fast… no matter how often our prejudices are belied by subsequent developments, we still cling to this unhealthy habit of reaching automatic conclusions

Given everything we’ve been through in the last month or so, one would think a little extra caution might be warranted before spectacularly pole-vaulting to instant conclusions on any given topic. But no. It’s actually the other way round: we seem to have become more prone – not less – to pronouncing instant ‘guilty’ verdicts in the absence of any proof.

And it seems we are also far likelier to form lynch-mobs today, than at any other point in our recent past.

Take ‘the curious case of the cat that was killed in the daytime’, for instance. Last Monday, Malta awoke to the story of a young stray cat that wandered into a restaurant – the Apple’s Eye in Golden Sands – only to end up being bludgeoned to death on the premises, allegedly in front of numerous witnesses, by an as-yet unidentified ‘elderly man’.

The story was uploaded as a post on Facebook – which automatically means that every last detail of that one eyewitness account must have been Gospel truth, no questions asked – and within less than 24 hours, an entire army of online sleuths had already solved the mystery. It was the father of the restaurant owner who bashed the cat to death with a stone. And anyone who says otherwise (including the restaurant owner, who insists it was someone else) must be lying.

Over the next 24 hours, photos of the presumed cat-killer – duly looted from his daughter’s Facebook page (before she was compelled to shut it down by multiple death-threats) – were already being circulated online. The accompanying text read: “Now we have the face of the scumbag kitten killer... Apple’s Eye owner may twist the truth as much as she wants... All we know is that this asshole beat the poor kitten to death... And she stated they didn’t know who he was.. But funnily enough he left restaurant in car with her mother... U know what...let’s see what justice does.... In the meantime... memorise his face.”

Hmm. Let’s try and break down the ‘logical’ thought processes that led to this particular conclusion. Normally, criminal detection works by a process of elimination. The first question to ask is: who could it NOT have been? One of several possible answers would be: ‘anyone who was not physically present at that restaurant on that particular morning’. And interestingly enough, the restaurant owner insists that her father was not even there when that cat was killed.

Ah, but her version does not conform to the more popular account that has already solidified into a hard-boiled fact, merely for having been repeated so often on the social media. And on that basis alone, we can all safely conclude she is ‘twisting the truth’.

Meanwhile, once we have duly eliminated all those potential suspects who have alibis – including me, by the way: I was nowhere near Golden Sands last Sunday (‘Thou canst not say I did it; never shake thy gory locks at me’, etc.) – all that remains is to ask ourselves who it could really have been, on the basis of the known facts.

Immediately, we are beset by a small problem. What known facts? All we have to go on is the word of one eyewitness (who has since taken down the accusatory post): even though – according to the original account – “two tables of tourists screamed and shouted at the man” while he was actually perpetrating the deed.

Oddly, it occurred to no one at this packed restaurant to try and film or photograph the incident with their mobile phones. Yet the cat itself was photographed at least twice: a ‘before and after’ case, where it was first seen alive under a restaurant table... and then dead, presumably a few minutes later.

Later still, when the man was reportedly driven from the scene of the crime by the restaurant owner’s mother, no one bothered to take down the car registration number... or even, for that matter, tell us what type of car it was.

Nor did any of those ‘screaming tourists’ even report the crime to the police: instead, it was the restaurant owner herself who filed the only police report to date. So unless I am missing something here – for instance, another post uploaded to Facebook, which never came into my line of vision – this entire story revolves only around the given word of one eyewitness: who, it must be said, never explicitly identified the suspect as the owner’s father in the first place.

How, then, was everyone so darn convinced that ‘this was the asshole wot dunnit’? On what basis was that conclusion reached?

Going on all the reactions I have seen so far, there is only one answer to that question. Gut-feeling. Our gut-feeling tells us that he did it; and for most people, that appears to be grounds enough to (almost literally, in this case) hang, draw and quarter a suspect without trial.

OK, now for the usual disclaimer part. Speaking for myself: I don’t know who killed that cat. I’d like to know, naturally: because it really was a grisly crime, and the sooner perpetrator is caught and brought to trial (through a proper, legitimate judicial process, not by a pitchfork-wielding mob), the better. And for all I know, the man in question may indeed be the cat-killing monster so many believe him to be.

But that is precisely the whole point. ‘Belief’ – in this and any other case – is simply not enough to form a solid judgment upon. For that, evidence is needed – and on the basis of everything I’ve seen and read so far, the existing evidence only points to that man being a suspect in this case. It does not add up to a confirmation of guilt.

I must say I find it astounding that I should even have to point all this out, after everything that recently happened in this country. It’s not just Egrant, mind you. Since then, we have also had news reports of an attempted child-abduction at Mellieha... which later turned out to be a false report, filed only to prevent someone from ‘usurping’ a little towel-and-umbrella space on a crowded sandy beach. More recently still, we had another Facebook post by a woman claiming to have been beaten up by a karrozzin driver... only for other witnesses to step forward, alleging that it was actually the woman herself who threw the first punch (note: not that it really justifies beating her to a pulp, but you get the picture. Facebook posts are not always reliable source of unbiased news.)

And all along, ‘instant judgments’ keep coming thick and fast. It seems that, no matter how often our prejudices are belied by subsequent developments, we still cling to this unhealthy habit of reaching automatic conclusions, only on the basis of a potentially misleading ‘gut-feeling’. Something tells me that sooner or later, this nasty habit of ours is going to lead to serious consequences.

In the case of the bludgeoned cat, there is a chance that popular conviction may yet be vindicated. Then again, fresh evidence might emerge to exculpate the number one suspect... hopefully, before he’s already been lynched. The only certainty to date is that we don’t know exactly what happened. But this in turn only points towards the truly frightening part of this entire mind-set: for many people, ‘knowing exactly what happened’ isn’t even an important consideration anymore.

The only important thing is that – having craned their own necks out to pronounce guilt – they now maintain their own credibility. If proof does emerge to establish that it was NOT the restaurant owner’s father who killed that cat... a sizeable chunk of those people will continue arguing that it WAS him, and to hell with any proof. They will question the new evidence; they will conjure up instant conspiracy theories to explain why the authorities might be ‘protecting’ the guilty party; they will, in brief, cling to their preconceived notions regardless... because the alternative is to lose face: something very few people are ever willing to do.

I could never really understand that mentality myself. There is a fair chance I might lose face with this article, if my doubts turn out to be unfounded. So what? Since when is ‘saving face’ more important than establishing the truth of any given incident?

I mentioned Egrant earlier, so I may as well close on that point. A lot of people who invested their own credibility in that unsubstantiated allegation over the past 15 months, are now behaving precisely as I described above: among other things, trying to discredit a reputable magistrate in their zeal to ‘prove’ that they were all along right... even though there was never any solid evidence to uphold that view in the first place.

It is more than evident that their concern is not, ultimately, in establishing the truth at all. On the contrary, they are only too happy to obfuscate the truth as much as possible, because it keeps getting in the way of their cherished ‘gut feelings’. And the scariest part of it all, is that some of these same people also have the temerity to speak out on behalf of ‘justice’.

If that is their idea of ‘justice’, then bashing the life out of a cat with a stone must surely constitute ‘kindness to animals’. I can only hope that these people never not end up becoming judges, magistrates or jurors... after all, they’ve already appointed themselves ‘executioners’, and that is way worrying enough.

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