Yesterday’s arraignments were not a day of triumph for anyone, not even for those who risked so much, even their livelihoods and lives, to make yesterday’s events happen. It was a day of shame for the entire country — even for the heroes, even for those who five years ago foretold that ignoring the blatant signs of money laundering, at the highest echelons of government, was bound to lead to the ruin of Malta’s reputation.
Those who pointed it out weren’t magicians. Nor were they seeing the future. They were simply seeing what was already seeded in 2016 grow like weeds, strangling everything else.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was called a witch and the rest were saddled with the label that they wanted to harm Malta. But Caruana Galizia wanted to break a spell, not cast one. Simon Busuttil managed to survive the forces that made him an outcast (briefly, when you look back, but interminably when you live through it) — all because he wanted to save the country the fate of an outcast.
The rest of us were simply pointing out that political illusions cannot last, and the bigger and longer the illusion, the bigger the eventual disaster. No country can have a glaring gap between its laws and the way its men of power actually operate. The market will eventually implode. The international system will not tolerate it. There will be a stinging backlash. At some point, therefore, the gap will need to be bridged: either by changing the laws to formalise the kleptocracy, or with intermittent violence to shut up the inconvenient voices, or by the shuddering reassertion of the law.
None of the options is sweet. For anyone who says that yesterday shows that “our institutions are working”, there is the mordant observation by Carmel Cacopardo, the ADPD leader: yesterday shows how much our institutions were not working in recent years.
Everyone in court yesterday is innocent until proven guilty — and that means legal guilt. Keith Schembri’s lawyers are claiming that all accusations against him are time-barred. Translation: even if he did it, m’lud, the police took too long to get to him.
If that’s true, that’s how well our institutions were working — for Schembri, not for us. The man who now complains that he’s being picked on when denied bail, because he has cooperated with the police, expects us to forget that he denied the police his Cloud password and told them he lost his mobile phone, in his house, some time during the night. Even the prime minister has publicly declared he does not believe him.
Nevertheless, the process will take long, many months at least, as everyone charged makes use of every safeguard offered by the law. For despite Schembri’s claims of a witch hunt, this is anything but that.
Mr Schembri: Witches have mobs set against them. They are chased in the streets. They are hounded by having whoever employs them, or advertises in their magazines, told that might not be a great idea. They are stigmatised, then burned to a cinder.
Mr Schembri: You, however, have a legal defence team, the guarantees of a judicial system, based on rules of admissible evidence and rights of appeal. The guarantees are such that we might yet see you go free.
So the most significant thing about yesterday is not that we saw the beginning of a road that will inexorably lead to jail time for anyone in the dock. It is simply that we saw them in the dock and led away to jail. A spell was broken.
It was a spell that even they were under. The eerie silence that followed the magistrate’s decision that they were denied bail: that’s the sound of a shattering spell. The tears and the comforting were the visible sign of a destroyed illusion of impunity: that the gap between appearance and reality could always be ignored or patched up. The devil never honours his pacts.
The illusion has been a national one. The majority of us were never fooled about what was really going on: but the majority were fooled, for a time, that it didn’t really matter. It was a kind of mass hypnosis, which only works if the subjects are willing. The majority wanted Malta to get away with it — because it was bamboozled into thinking that the country was soberly making use of loopholes, not drunkenly swerving into danger. There’s no naivety quite as spellbinding as cynicism.
What happened yesterday was a sign that too much power was concentrated in too few hands. It still is. And that can only mean further bad news down the road.