In memory of Lassana - Michela Spiteri
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In memory of Lassana - Michela Spiteri

Our politicians' response has been feeble at best

A roadside memorial to Lassana Cisse, who was killed in Birżebbuġa on April 6. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

A roadside memorial to Lassana Cisse, who was killed in Birżebbuġa on April 6. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

I didn’t know who Lassana Cisse was until he was murdered, and I suspect few of us did. I now know his name but precious little else about his life.

What was his childhood in Africa like? Did he have brothers or sisters? A significant other? Children? Was he in touch with his parents? Was he happy? What was he thinking about on that fateful night he walked the long dark road toward his lonely and brutal murder?

Lassana Cisse should not have died. He died violently, suddenly and alone. He was only 42. I have no idea whether or not he has been buried, and if so where. Nor do I know whether he has received an appropriate send-off, with many mourners in attendance, not least our own country’s leaders and Head of State. But I’m not too hopeful about that, because I rather suspect that such respect would have been well advertised and spun. And yet in a world where every individual life is supposed to ‘matter’, it follows that each and every one of us merits a rite of passage and a memorial. Lassana Cisse deserves them too. He also deserves a proper obituary. He deserves not to be overlooked.

It might seem like a calculated political afterthought, but it is still not too late for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to offer a substantial reward to anyone with information regarding the murder of this hapless Ivorian killed by a gunshot to the head in Ħal Far. If, as Muscat has said, the value of a human life is not measured by nationality, skin colour or race, I think he’d also agree that no expense should be spared to solve this unprecedented and deeply disturbing murder.  And if the assistance of foreign experts is necessary and indeed preferable, then bring it on. Otherwise Muscat’s words will be meaningless and empty – the stuff of political rhetoric.   

It would be a timely riposte indeed to the intolerance, discrimination and xenophobic scapegoating of migrants with which we have become all too familiar. And besides, it would send a clear message to all and sundry that Muscat and Malta do really mean business: that all human life – including that of migrants – is of equal value, and every bit as sacrosanct as the Prime Minister has suggested. But the message must also go beyond pious good intentions and really set down some very straight lines: that anyone harming another person, irrespective of colour, will be held to account and brought to justice.

It follows therefore that no stone must be left unturned to ferret out the drive-by shooter and whoever else was involved in this heinous crime. No one – no one – is going to get away with this.   

The Prime Minister – rightly – has cautioned us against idle speculation before all the facts are known; but that has not prevented many from declaring it a racially motivated murder. The signs certainly point to the fact that Cisse died because he was black and happened to be walking along a deserted road near the Ħal Far Open Centre where he lived. So it looks as if he was a soft target, selected at random but in the most ‘obvious’ of places.

If this is indeed the case – i.e. a murder of simply someone with the wrong colour skin – it will be the first murder of its kind. The implications will be ugly and far-reaching. 

Of course we all know that anti-immigrant rhetoric is never in short supply in Malta and elsewhere: black people, particularly migrants, are frequently on the receiving end of offensive remarks and hostile behaviour. Migrants are the unwanted and uninvited guests that Malta, and the rest of Europe, try to keep out. To challenge the existence of this mindset would be both hypocritical and disingenuous: some of our own political leaders have been slammed by NGOs and the media for xenophobic discourse.   

The Leader of the Opposition, Adrian Delia, has had to defend himself against racism in the not too distant past. And while I am prepared to accept his protestations of “I’m not racist” (or “only racially aware”, as perhaps we all are to a degree), the present moment would have been the perfect opportunity for him to mount his soapbox and allay our fears. 

The signs certainly point to the fact that Lassana Cisse died because he was black and happened to be walking along a deserted road near the Ħal Far Open Centre

So I was surprised, very surprised, that Delia didn’t and apparently chose to overlook this recent and very ugly chapter in Malta’s story (my Google searches anyway have yielded nothing). 

Instead, Delia seems lately to have been far more exercised by the ‘removal’ of religious symbols from health centres, and much less by the callous annihilation of a human being. I stand to be corrected – and I should love to be wrong – but as far as I can tell, Lassana Cisse did not merit a single mention let alone an extra decibel or two from the Opposition leader. 

But many others did shout out, and most vociferously. Malta’s far-right attacked the media and NGOs for even suggesting an obvious possibility – a racial motivation. I thought about this and came to the conclusion that to lash out at just this possibility does in fact betray a worryingly defensive ‘denial’. Such denial, I’ve noticed, is at the very heart of much racism.   

And ironically the very first step toward dismantling racism is to accept that, at some level or other, we are all capable of racism.

I was appalled and angered by what happened in Ħal Far. I also insist that I am every bit as Maltese as the Fatima Marias of Malta who take umbrage at the merest imputation of racism. Such bigots choose instead to rationalise and retaliate, voicing their unrelated and specious concerns regarding the under-reporting of crimes allegedly committed by foreigners.

Consider for instance the following:

“They haven’t yet found the assassin and it seems they have already made up their mind that there’s a whiff of racism in the killing of a foreigner. Nothing is said about a foreigner’s rape... zero!... Whoever they are, let’s hope the murderer is caught because if not, they will pile up the hate on the Maltese so that foreigners retaliate against us . . .” 

I find it curious, not to mention worrying, that someone can write such stuff and not see the ‘qui s’excuse, s’accuse’ element at work. Because words and phrases like ‘racist’ or ‘racially motivated crime’ describe essentially only an individual’s attitudes and actions. They certainly do not define a nation. And those who feel threatened or in some way ‘guilty by association’ define only themselves, and that’s because they must come face to face with their own beliefs about racial inequality.  

Nobody is calling all Maltese racist. But if you feel so strongly about being called racist and feel persecuted by the media, then perhaps you need to examine your own conscience and ask yourself why precisely you feel that way.

Happy Easter to all my readers. 

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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