Lessons from Babylon

Here’s a lesson from 2,800 years ago for anyone seeking to learn anything from Monday’s tragedy in Santa Venera. The Code of Hammurabi stipulated that if a building collapsed, the builder was to be executed.

We have a lot to learn from ancient Babylon. It’s not the punishment that’s instructive. It’s the reasoning that went into it.

There’s the quaint conviction that it should not be a building’s inhabitants that should live in terror of builders’ mistakes. It’s the builders who should fear the consequences of their carelessness.

The Babylonians also recognised that building a house securely was not simply about a relationship between the developer and private citizens, with the State simply there as an impartial supervisor of a private relationship.

There were two other relationships. That between the State and its citizens – a matter of public trust. And that between the builder and the State: that building was not just a matter of pursuing a private interest. There was a public stake in it as well. Public life breaks down when buildings collapse.

In contrast with that, what we have heard from the public authorities this week would make you think the only issue that matters is whether the State had been a good overseer. You’d wonder whether we even realise that the broken trust between State and citizens needs independent reparations of its own.

The State let down Miriam Pace long before Monday’s tragedy. Before she was killed, she lived in fear of the developers next door. We have the testimony of her neighbour and friend, Rosette Zerafa: “We were worried and scared, especially her…”

They were not alone. At yesterday’s protest, Anthea Brincat, whose own home was destroyed last summer, said: “We are living in terror. Who will have to die next before something actually happens in this country?”

Around the island, countless people shudder every time the house vibrates, tense in their homes of many decades. Now, they have the video of Miriam Pace’s house crumbling, as iconic as the Twin Towers going down.

Rosette Zerafa again: “How can I not go crazy? I was terrified when the thought of her under the rubble came to me.” The destruction of Miriam Pace’s home is an act of terror.

Think now of the people hitherto reluctant to sell their apartment to an insistent developer, who has bought the rest of the block, or the neighbouring house, and who is promising to build around them come what may. The tragedy has shifted the calculus. The Prime Minister might huff and promise, but meanwhile, the developers have more negotiating leverage.

Not least because there is no strong reason to believe the State will pass any effective measures. Not on its track record.

In short, the developers emerge from the tragedy stronger than they were a week ago. Eventually, perhaps, the regulations and apparatus of oversight will catch up with them. Until then, however, ordinary people are even more terrified of them.

That’s the nature of the system failure we have. So radical, that things actually have got worse since last week.

Miriam Pace’s death was not the result of negligence. It was an act of violence. It began before she died, with the process that led her to be afraid for her safety in her own home. Our shared world is already collapsing when you cannot believe the authorities when they say you’re safe. Your life is already menaced when you feel helpless because you doubt the authorities really care.

That sense of helplessness is founded on fact. Our State has lost its primary sense of purpose: to ensure the security of its citizens. How else do you explain that already with buildings collapsing last year, there was institutional indifference to whether the supervisory agency has adequate resources? Under these conditions, the best regulations in the world aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

The breach of public trust by the State will not be repaired simply by rewriting the rules or increasing supervisory budgets. The State needs to recognise that it has betrayed the public. It can only win back public trust if it shows it’s prepared to make public atonement.

European democracies don’t execute politicians whose departments rip up public trust. But they do demand resignations. Unless Ian Borg goes, we have to recognise that a slave-owning society that predates us by 3,000 years was more public-spirited than we are.


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