The Land in Question – an introduction

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“(Finally), in the early morning hours of November 20 (1969), the fourth attempt coalesced and more than 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. The island’s caretaker, Glenn Dodson, who was 1/8 Cherokee, told the landers that they were trespassing, winked, and then showed the landing party to the warden’s house. It was there that the occupiers established their headquarters.” (History Nuggets).

In the mid-eighties Manoel Island was our playground. Wednesdays – days off from the disciplinary jesuit school – were days of adventure and roaming. “We” were a band of urchins from the greater Sliema area spanning from the Gozitan in Paceville to some guys from Fond Ghadir, Tigne and some even from the point where the barrier between Sliema and Gzira becomes murky (Gzira would have been “other people”). Cursorily vetted by our parents it was “kosher” for us to hang out together and hang we did making the land stretching from Pembroke to Valletta our realm that we would shuttle around in on wide skateboards or hitching rides on buses.

Ruins. Desolation. Abandoned buildings. They were the disneyworld and playstation of our day. We did not hunt for pokemons or ride the rollercoasters in some luna park. We went to the crumbling villas on the QuiSiSana waterfront, we rode our skateboards blindly down the lanes of Pembroke from El Alamein to Juno and Tunis. We “explored” the barred gates of Australia Hall and braved the dangers of mad dogs that could be unleashed any moment by caretakers or “residents” of some of the ex-army houses that had been reclaimed thanks to Mintoffian concepts of public good. We were known to have raided the vast desolation that was the Gzira Stadium with it’s jungle like growths, corrugated iron mazes and leftover mementos.

Most of all though we owned Manoel Island. Nobody knew it at that point but a band of young twelve year olds were the actual rightful owners of the island named after a grandmaster. Crossing the bridge onto the island was an act of liberation from the mundane boredoms of everyday life. Once we were past the turnstiles of the old stadium (the one on the island not the one in Gzira) we knew we were back in our land. There were ramparts to be climbed using rudimentary ropes (purchased at the Sunday Monti along with all the army surplus we could find – diligent kids were we), there was an abandoned hospital to be inspected from top to bottom, there were miles of tunnels to be walked through with trepidation and a faulty torch. There was also the actual fort guarded by the usual token army of rabid dogs but nothing was an obstacle to our water war games and camping exploits.

Safety was never the question. Nobody in his right mind would let their kids run the whole gamut of risk-taking actions nowadays. Neither, had they known, would our parents ever have allowed us to roam the land of used syringes, satanist relics and rusted obstacles. The used syringes were the marks of a burgeoning addict community that used the abandoned zone for their needs away from the prying eyes of the public. The “satanist” marks deep in the bowels and tunnels under the fort were also the clues of  life away from the public – a pentagram here, a box of candles there. Some crazed fools doing their trendy thing as some were wont to do in the 80’s – and scaring the living bejeezus out of the teens exploring the tunnels like some a latter day Famous Five minus the ginger beer.

Pembroke, Saint Andrew’s (including Saint George’s Bay), the stretch of land behind the Hilton, Qui-Si-Sana, Tigne’ and Manoel Island. Their time in the eighties was a time of desolate abandonment. Beyond the point where the old ITS school used to stand was a vast stretch of rough land and a bit of asphalt. It was an alternative point of gathering to Ta’ Qali for those football-loving fathers and sons who gathered religiously on Sunday afternoons – the fathers to listen to Serie A on radio and the sons to form a myriad of football matches until the four o’clock siren call to turn back in for a hot shower and supper.

Bit by bit each of these fantastic zones would be imagined away by some architect closed in a room where he “designed” his latest project while surrounded by fake trees ready for the to-scale model that he would pitch to the businessman in whose hands one would find the most flexible politician or party with the least amount of spine possible.  We all know which way Australia Hall went. We have seen the battle for foreshore access around (ex-Hilton) Portomaso. We have sat and watched while the coastal path around Saint George’s Bay becomes a nostalgic memento. We have seen the old Qui-Si-Sana turn into an unrecognizable monster and Tigne point is … well it’s Tigne point.

The coalition of local councillors and activists that have put their foot down on the matter of Manoel Island and access thereto are a welcome breath of fresh air. In this here age of post-truth politics it is becoming harder and harder to get people to understand how much political decisions actually affect their rights – especially when their rights are not so easily tangible. Much of the problems of corruption in today’s politics have not sunk in for many of the voters and citizens – mainly because they can be fobbed off with words and spin.

Access to the foreshore, access to a park, to open air to clean public spaces. Now that is tangible. It is the ideal first building block to recreate a socially active part of the populace that finaly has had enough of being told what can or cannot be done for and with the public good.

Well done Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent. That is a well done that cuts through the ages. It comes from a band of kids whose skateboards scratched the pavements all along the Front, who marked their time with Swatches and whose day was made when they found an extra bit of strong rope that would let them climb that extra bit of metres onto the rampart outside the fort where they would sit and watch the crazy society far way in its rushed madness to an ill-conceived idea of progress.

Grazzi KEA.


Ban the Bikinini

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A French court has given some reprieve to the burkini craze that struck the last part of the crazy summer news. After several French beach-side resorts had banned the wearing of the burkini at the beach things had gotten even hotter with a few incidents of aggression. We had also seen some officers of the law inflict fines on women who insisted on wearing the apparel that many conservatives perceived to be provocative. One aspect of the burkini saga was particularly jarring and confusing. On the one hand those who could be said to be of a liberal frame of mind would argue that it is not up to the state to tell women what they can or cannot wear at the beach. This was not to be an extension of the “public security” debate surrounding the burqa. Here was another facet of the issue – whether the wearing of a burkini is yet another vindication of the rights of self-determination under the western-style package of individual rights.  The counter-argument of course was made that the burkini is yet another extension of the “oppressive” nature of Muslim strictures. Women, the counter-argument goes, should not be forced to wear a burkini or a burqa and therefore should either not wear them or basically not turn up at the beach at all.

I admit that it is all mighty confusing. The whole question of volition lies behind the dilemma. Is it a choice that women make of their own volition or is it something that is being forced upon them by their religion? If it is being forced upon them under the religion they freely choose to adopt is it then up to the state to prohibit the wearing of more modest attire? This is not a question of mores per se. After all we only (only?) have to go back around a hundred years to find that the social regulation of modest attire at the beach was a standard held highly by the majority of the members of society. Even closer to this day and age I have a very clear recollection of groups of women hitting the beaches early in the morning and swimming in full black dress. A religious inclination and interpretation of the concept of modesty was behind it all at the time too.

I’m just back from a holiday in the states during which I had the chance to swim in a couple of hotel pools to cool off the California sun after a day of driving and touring. It was not uncommon to share the pool with men who swam in t-shirt and shorts – modesty? Perhaps. Or maybe, unlike me they were not prepared to wield the sad excuse for a beer belly that I have developed. The thing is that swimming attire IS a question of choice and the state should not be anywhere near regulating what people wear when they take their dip. The whole burkini issue got out of hand – primarily because what people wear to swim is no business of the state but also because discussing the oppression of women by some religion or another has no place in this context.

Watching Maltese persons comment on the burkini ban was another thing altogether. This is a country that still regulates what people can or cannot wear at the beach by law anyway. A woman opting to sunbathe topless in Malta will almost certainly feel the strong arm of the law come down on her. Streaking is also against public mores for the most part and the recent trend of gentlemen taking up nude walking along the sea front does not seem to be forcing any change in the status of illegality that they enjoy.

The reality on the tiny Mediterranean island is such that anybody barking about the burkini ban missed the fact that we are quite content in having the state tell us what we can or cannot wear on our own beaches without as much as batting an eyelid. Add that to your list of ironic things if you are Maltese lovinmalta, I’m sure you’ve got one somewhere.


Wir schaffen das!

 

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Angela Merkel seems to still be on the side of deep European values that are the heritage of this continent’s history. Many were expecting her to have a change of heart on her refugee policy following the latest attacks in Bavaria that could be linked in some way or another to the influx of refugees. Instead she has chosen to clearly state that there is no going back on the “open-door refugee policy”. What remains to be seen is whether she will insist on the Merkel Method approach to solving refugee-related issues EU-wide or whether she is now prepared to adopt a more federalist approach. Full article here.

Speaking for the first time after a Syrian refugee blew himself up in southern Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirmed her commitment to helping refugees on Thursday.

“Wir schaffen das [we’ll manage it],” Merkel said, repeating the famous phrase she uttered almost a year ago which set off a dramatic wave of migration to Germany.

Her government would stick to its course on refugees, but it would also reinforce efforts to fight the causes of the refugee crisis, she said.

“We have already achieved very, very much in the last 11 months.”

Defending her decision to stop applying EU asylum rules to Syrian refugees, she said she had “acted in line with my knowledge and conscience.”

The Chancellor had broken off her holiday in eastern Germany to come back to Berlin and address the nation after a string of bloody attacks, three of which were carried out by refugees, left the country shaken.

“The attacks are harrowing, depressing and depraved,” Merkel said, adding that “terrorists want to destroy our ability to live together harmoniously”.

“They sow hate and fear between cultures and religions.”

“That two men who came to us as refugees carried out the attacks in Würzburg and Ansbach mocks our country,” she said.

Civilizational taboos have been broken, Merkel said, adding that the attacks took place in locations where any of us could have been – a point she had also made after a shooting spree in Munich on Friday left nine people and the gunman dead.

Asked by a journalist if terrorists entering Europe is the price we pay for our humanity, Merkel replied: “We know since at least the Paris attacks that Isis also use refugee routes to smuggle terrorists through.

“We have also know for a long time about the travel routes taken by people who are threats to the state. We need to check all of these routes and also live with the danger of terrorism.”

She refuted that this was the most difficult point in her chancellorship.


Lessons in Fear (after Munich)

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It’s a new thing now. Not Pokemon I mean, but this habit to drop “and Munich?” in conversation without as much as a semblance of intent to actually engage about the matter beyond signalling a mutual acknowledgement of the existence of yet another horrible event marking the simultaneous deaths of multiple human beings. “And Munich?” dropped at some part of an exchange is meant to imply a plurality of emotions, feelings and thoughts without actually dealing with them. In post-fact, emotion driven society there is a whole series of “taken as reads” packaged in a two-word reference.

“And Munich?” means that they have stricken again. It means that we are condemned to live another series of days in anxious attention watching the news to hear about how yet another subset of innocent victims had their lives cut short and how the state can do nothing or seems to be unable to do anything about them. “And Munich?” means that the terrorists are winning the war and that all we can do is share a feeling of helplessness as the multi-headed hydra strikes again with wanton abandon and without any recognisable pattern. “And Munich?” definitely implies that the refugee/immigrant problem is out of hand and that whether we like it or not it must be stopped. “And Munich?” includes the sentiment that now even Merkel’s Germany is no longer safe from gun or truck wielding maniacs so why should we be safe? “And Munich?” insinuates that we are living under constant siege and in constant fear and that nothing seems to be able to save us.

Therein lies the problem. Social discourse prefers not to engage but rather to wallow in emotional dysfunctionalism. There is no effort to define beyond the effortless generalisations and assumed truisms that sweep everyone and everything under the same carpet and into the same media-wrapped boxes of cliches. Munich showed us the direction in which we are moving when it comes to fear-based social reasoning.

The first clues came with the breaking news. “Shooting in Munich” did not need any further elaboration. We, and when I say we I mean the global media village’s spectators, were already braced for the worst. A series of automated events were expected to be put into place. “The escalation”, “the police reaction”, “the heroes on scene”, “the vindication”, “the first amateur videos and reports”, “the rise in number of reported victims”, “the stand off”, “the resolution”, “the global political condemnation”, ” the solidarity and mourning” and of course “je suis Munich”. All these steps were in place in our collective minds once the our medium of choice tweeted us the breaking news that there had been a new “Shooting in Munich”.

Then came the early analysis as the events continued to unroll before our eyes. Munich Police stated that since a man had wielded a gun in public this had to be treated as a terrorist attack in order to mobilise the maximum resources to counter its effects. It was an interesting honest statement at a very early stage. As far as I can recall it is the first time that while we had an “attack” in progress we were given direct access to the security protocols of the nation in question. The official reaction is, rightly I add, tuned to assume that we are dealing with a terrorist of the organised (ISIL) type and then question that assumption later. The reasoning is clear and pragmatic – in the worst case scenario the security forces are right and they have all the means to deal with the issue. In the best case the attack is not really a terrorist attack but one that seems to be so due to the circumstances and still all means have been deployed to minimise the damage.

It turns out that the Iranian born 18-year old who went on a shooting spree in a shopping district of Germany’s third largest city was actually emulating a Norwegian far-right madman who had gone on a shooting spree among a group of political youths on an holiday island in Norway. The Iranian was more Breivik and less Daesh. Yet we would only find that out over 24 hours after the events. As it turns out, the Munich police deployment of security measures – blockdown on transport, curfew, assumption of other shooters involved in the attack – may have saved more lives and contained the damage. Similarly, the social mindset as the events unfolded demonstrated a “trained” mentality among the general public. Twitter hashtags offered support and shelter to anyone stranded in the potential zone of carnage, Facebook triggered a fine-tuned function that helped people show that they are safe and sound, the media (or most of it) knew better than to defy police instructions not to share videos and images at the peak of the crisis.

So what lessons do we draw from the Munich attack? Early the next morning I put the following post on facebook:

One of them is as old as the word itself: it takes FEAR and TERROR to make a TERRORIST. Not ISIL, not an organised network of sharpshooting ideological maniacs, not immigrants who got in under the radar with intent to kill, not far right extremists with an agenda. Those are all masks and labels that hide the real danger – misfits, renegades, angry individuals who will prey on the new mindset of fear. One man with a gun is no longer a criminal – he is a terrorist (hasn’t crime always spread terror?) and the third largest city in Germany is locked down.  The biggest cause of fear is lack of knowledge. Today’s society needs new ways of responding to these realities. Part of that development lies in understanding how and why all this is happening.

I do believe that is our biggest lesson yet. We have come to realise that due to a combination of circumstances that include the immediacy of breaking news and coverage we are a society that easily falls prey to fear and helplessness. Crimes and criminals that involve deaths and victims are no longer to be treated “simply” as such but as part of a wider bigger problem that is holding all of society at ransom. the new crime of “terrorism” is like nothing that we have ever seen before – mainly BECAUSE of the immediacy of the breaking news when the situation is no longer limited to the immediate closeness of wherever the events unfold but involves a whole global community. This sense of communal fear and helplessness was previously not achievable by similar groups as ISIL operating on the basis of terror and fear – the IRA, the Brigate Rosse, Bader Meinhoff, the PLO.

This psychological hostage situation is exacerbated because all the while society will carry on with its own agenda and there will unfortunately always be the misfits, the renegades and the angry individuals who will commit crimes that would in all other circumstances not qualify for the “terrorist” moniker but that will henceforth contribute to the generation of mass hysteria and uncertainty.  It is important for all of society to take time and understand such acts – in order not only to be in a position to better react to them in the future but also to try, as far as possible to avoid them ever happening.

The best way to fight fear is with knowledge.


No Peace for Nice

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With the end of EURO 2016, Nice and its inhabitants must have thought that they had closed their account with violence. The football tournament had been the scene of some violent moments when “supporters” hailing from different nations wreaked havoc on many of the host towns in France. Nice was one of them. When the violence among fans erupts we tend to hear two arguments. Firstly there are those who claim that these are not “real fans”, that they are only on site in search of violence and ways to display their pent up anger. Secondly the reaction this time round was to threaten deportation. Some of the fans arrested after violent nights were in fact returned to their country of origin.

Last night, during the 14th July celebrations on the Nice Promenade, an individual who has now been identified as a French-Tunisian ploughed into the huge crowd watching the event with a van and ended his mad drive by firing shots into the crowd before being put down by policemen. President Hollande stated that this attack had a “terrorist character” that cannot be denied and that we need to do “everything we can to fight against terrorism’. Once again a Western nation squares up against an invisible enemy…. a chimera. The reaction to such events is still a siege mentality of us vs them – as though there is an invisible army among us ready to strike again and against whom measures have to be taken.

It is now almost 15 years since the brutal attacks on the Twin Towers in the US and it seems that we have not moved much further forward. The war on the ground in Syria, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East gives us the illusion that a battle is being won or lost. Daesh gives an ephemeral shape and face to “the enemy” whenever one is needed but soon fades in a cloud of confusing and contradictory information peppered with amateur youtube videos of beheadings and crucifixions far from the “civilised West” that is under attack.

Reactions closer to home are very much like those we witness in the football violence month. An attempt to define “them” (the real fans vs the fake fans) ends up in the simplification of the all encompassing term “terrorist”. Those who sow terror. The knee-jerk reaction fuelled by ignorance is to assemble an identikit based on the cliches – islam, immigrants, arabic…. – and ask that all of these get thrown out. Donald Trump? A hero. Give us more walls. Suddenly the Brexit vote does not look so dumb. Just as in the football months , just as every time a mad idea to “purify” society seems to be taking over the idea of “deportation” begins to gain in popularity. But will it work?

If, as the reports are claiming, this was a French-Tunisian, then blaming the EU and its policy on immigration has little or nothing to do with the events.  Tunisia was a French colony until the mid-fifties. Persons of Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan origin coloured the French landscape adding a touch of diversity  long before the sudden awareness on “immigrants” was given a new tinge of alarm by a disgruntled part of the population. Thousands of persons of Maltese and Italian descent pepper the coast of France as they do the north coast of Africa – relics from a time when the concept of free movement across the Mediterranean was much more fluid and economic based than it is today.

The truth seems to lie more in the fact that the perpetrators of recent events labelled as “terrorist” are more likely to be angry misfits in society. We used to call them criminals. They perpetrate violence on large number of people while hanging on to the excuse of “martyrdom” or “vindication” but we should not be side-tracked by the mask that they choose to show when committing the crime. Normal society, acting calmly and rationally, has laws for criminals and sends them to prison. Criminals are not deported, they are punished for their crimes.

The 2000s have been a fertile ground in the Western World for the creation of angry generations of individuals. I have already spoken about this not so long ago (Killing in the name of – June 16th):

The truth is that it is all of society that is threatened – as it always has been – by the existence of misfits and grudge-bearers who would do more than write a letter to the editor complaining about how society’s mores have gone to the dumps. Intent and motive is beside the point if not only to understand how much pent up anger exists or needs to exist in an individual before he resorts to violence. The Orlando and Paris killers may have pinned their banner to ISIS and some contorted view of a religion but the fact remains that their twisted acts are the result of violent social misfits.

It is not even their creed or origin that should be under focus but the reasons why they failed to fit so badly in the societies in which they were brought up. Badly enough to pick up a gun or dagger and kill fellow human beings. Badly enough to not care.

I came across a chat this morning where one of the people (an Australian based individual) was advocating deportation and exit from the EU for France because of the EU’s “immigration policy”. The implication is always the same. The problem is immigration and immigrants. Is it really? Not too far back in time Sarkozy’s government faced huge riots in French suburbia. We read about battles between the police and suburban angry youth burning cars and rioting in the streets outside and around Paris. Was this Islam or immigrant inspired? No it was not.

Western democracies are having to face a bigger problem than terrorism. The bigger problem is the huge number of individuals who no longer feel safe or happy in our society. Economically downtrodden, socially marginalised and with no hope these are the fertile grounds for explosions of anger and acts of desperation. From Orlando to Nice the resorting to angry deeds becomes almost a natural consequence.

Society needs to notice that creating a convenient label such as terrorist or immigrant does not take the monster away. It also needs to be told fast that Trump-like solutions or Farage-like fear mongering are not on the table. Isolation gets nobody nowhere. Rather than concentrating on demonstrations of strength the problem should be tackled at the roots – ironically projects such as the EU intended for economic and social betterment of the peoples of Europe are being hijacked by fearmongerers and the jackals of war.

Listening to Farage, Trump and the like will not solve anything. It will only exacerbate the very problems that we need to be solving.