Sunday 01 October 2023

A warped sense of sympathy… why do we feel sorry for the culprit?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

When a man’s battered body was left lying on the side of the road, the victim of a hit and run, only to be discovered by a passerby – everyone was full of anger and grief at such a senseless loss of life. Antoine Degabriele, 51, was found on the pavement on Triq President Anton Buttigieg and certified dead on the spot.

The search for the driver did not take long; thanks to parts of the car which were found at the scene, the perpetrator was traced by the Police (even though he had unsuccessfully tried to hide the car in a garage). The 23-year-old driver, Dean Donavan Frendo was charged with killing Degabriele, driving a vehicle without a license and insurance policy, driving over the speed limit, and tampering with the evidence.

But suddenly, the tone online changed. There was a decided shift from feeling sorry for the victim, to people feeling sorry for the culprit. Here are just two examples, translated from the Maltese, of some typical comments:

“Anyone who has children cannot say anything and should not be scandalised …the poor parents and the trouble they find themselves in, I feel sorry for them because I say, what if I were in their shoes?”

“No one should be scandalised. Maybe he kept going because he was in shock, everyone can make a mistake. His mistake was to not phone an ambulance, even anonymously. But no one should judge anyone else.”

There was more on the same lines, generally from women, who were thinking to themselves, what if this were my son? Fair enough, it is an understandable, brutally honest question. When tragic traffic accidents occur and the driver behind the wheel is young, anyone with adult children inevitably puts themselves in the shoes of the parents, and what they would do in these circumstances. It is a thorny, moral dilemma explored several times in TV dramas and films, such as in the series Your Honour, in which the son of a very upright Judge gets entangled in a hit-and-run case. Faced by the prospect of his son going to jail, the father goes to great lengths to protect him, by covering up the crime.

In this case, it was the driver himself who apparently tried to cover up what happened (aided by a mechanic who is also being questioned), and this is the salient point which goes one step further than simply fleeing the scene out of panic and shock. It implies calculated intent by someone who knows that what they did was horribly wrong and who tried to get away with it.

As so many have pointed out..what about the victim? If the culprit had stopped, or turned back and called for help, the whole scenario would have been quite different. He would at least have demonstrated a modicum of remorse about hitting someone with his car, rather than leaving him by the wayside like roadkill. The fact that hit and runs have become so frequent is chilling because it speaks of a society which, apart from having too many reckless drivers speeding around, also points to a sheer lack of respect for human life.

Instead, a hit and run becomes all about “me” and saving my own skin, so that I do not have to suffer any consequences for my actions. The casualties and the heartbroken family I leave behind are immaterial, because there are always going to be people who feel sorry for me as well, as they try to cushion my behaviour and “explain” away my fleeing the scene. While parents are inevitably gripped by the fear of “what would I do if my son/daughter ran over someone …” one would also hope that parents are sitting their children down and drumming it into them that if they are involved in an accident, they cannot simply run away like cowards. It all boils down to one undeniable truth: what is wrong is just wrong.

Why do people still stick up for a Government which has squandered our taxes?

The first rains came early this year, and so did the floods. Rather than in the first week of September, it was the first week of August which saw the island being hit by a rainstorm and our streets turnings into rivers. With each passing year, and with more and more construction, there is nowhere for the water to go and we were soon regaled with photos of cars submerged halfwayunder water.

Yet, this was not supposed to keep happening was it? How many expensive PR campaigns have we seen, promising us “better roads for you” while half the island was dug up because of major roadworks projects? The millions spent on our roads were needed, which is why we gritted our teeth and patiently waited for these better roads to materialise – but here we are again, with no thought given to draining the rainwater. Just as infuriating as the flooded roads, however, were those who right on cue piped up and tried to excuse the Government. “It’s like no other country ever gets flooded!” they said, in that ‘how dare you criticise the Government’ tone.

Oh, excuse me for expecting accountability. Excuse me for wanting my taxes to be spent wisely rather than going into the pockets of contractors who don’t care whether a brand new road cannot take a few hours of heavy rain and has to be done again.

It’s not just the roads either. I read an account of someone whose rented flat was completely flooded because the construction on the floor above them did not have any contingency plans for when it rains. Everything they own was damaged and they have to look for a new place to live. As they desperately turned to Facebook for guidance, they were met with the discouraging remark that, this is Malta, good luck getting any compensation. No wonder we see so many negative remarks about our country and daily photos of people selling their belongings because they have finally given up on living here. Everything seems to be wired to work against the common citizen and it is a constant daily battle to get what is ours by right: a safe, decent place to live where you don’t have to worry about being run over by maniac drivers or having your car or property flooded by lack of infrastructural planning.

It is a country where someone like Joseph Portelli, the new construction king on the block, is carried shoulder high and hailed as a hero at the Hamrun feast, as the President of the town’s football team which he took over in March 2021. He has been instrumental in the club’s success, flooding the club with strong investment to win the league.

“I fork out €1.5 million yearly to win a league and we barely make one million,” he revealed. His next plan is to build a stadium for the club. “It’s the best money I’ve spent in my whole life. I wish I had a larger budget, six or seven million. I don’t have that money so I want to build a project which would make the club self-sustainable,” he told Lovin’ Malta.

The man has ruined Malta and Gozo with his sprawling construction projects, but hey, his team Hamrun Spartans became the first ever Maltese football club to reach the play-off stage of a European tournament …so I guess all is forgiven.

Personally, while I applaud the footballers for this victory, I find it impossible to forget that the man pumping money into the club is one who snaps his fingers and gets development permits for any projects he wants. He has openly admitted his cosy relationship with politicians in order to get approval for his large scale projects but it seems many see nothing wrong with that.

I guess as long as he is providing work for hundreds of people and his football team wins, nothing else matters.

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