The Malta Independent 16 June 2019, Sunday

Liam Debono is not at fault

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 12 December 2018, 11:03 Last update: about 6 months ago

There are very few instances when the public outcry joins rank in Malta and calls out collectively for the flattening of someone.  I am referring to the terrible incident that happened on the 15th May of this year when a young man, Liam Debono, was allegedly responsible for running over a police constable, Simon Schembri, after the former was pulled over.  Schembri as a result was left maimed and at one point fighting for his life.


I remember being invited to a discussion programme at the time to debate this matter and I repeatedly called for restraint; first because this was going to lead us to the predictable ‘moral panics’ against all young people and secondly, facts needed to be verified before turning the whole justice system on its head and the citizens becoming judge, jury and all set for the lynching. 

At that point there was so much anger that people were practically beckoning for the decapitation of this young man.

Now, I am not here to defend Liam Debono.  However, I am not even ready to justify the incessant loathing and odium being directed at this young man. 

But let me be tangential for a moment and let us agree on this point; ‘Young people remain a highly contested group within our society’. Our news portals, our media, our pjazza debates, our discussions circumvent on the fact that young people are problematic, sticky, knotty and unreliable.  The public discourse centres around declarations like; ‘they shouldn’t be voting at the age of 16’, ‘they shouldn’t be driving’, ‘they shouldn’t be partying’, ‘they shouldn’t be smoking’, ‘they shouldn’t be having sex’. 

If it were for ‘us’ (adults) it would be the ‘shouldn’t be’ generation.   

In other words, young people are considered outlandish with no respect to authority.  What I am reminded of at this point is the graffiti of the unsigned Banksy, "ONE NATION UNDER CCTV".  In not so many words what we seem to be doing is that we have created the notion of surveillance on young people, hovering around their lifestyle. This is nothing less than internalized coercion achieved through the constant observation of young people rather than allowing for interaction. Not only that, but, ‘Young people always seem to fall short of the expectations of adults’.  In other words, there has always been this risk of instrumentalisation as youth have been understood as simply there to let us morally down.

But you know what?

The issue at hand is not about youths’ snags.  The problem we have on the table is the result of the ambivalent positioning of a segment of the youth population considered ‘a hazard’ because of the social constructions that relegate them.

From where I stand a cohort of young people are left to their devices.  It doesn’t justify undesirable behaviour but it shows that where one comes from, what one experiences during their early years and adolescence does make a huge difference in a person’s life. 

Let me tell you what I’m about by sharing snippets of life stories I collated as part of a research I conducted for the National Youth Agency.

This is Noel, a young offender, currently serving a sentence at CoRRS (formerly known as Y.O.U.R.S.) says;

... my biggest pain is that at times I feel so isolated and alone, forgotten by everyone...

Noel is not talking about self-created vulnerability, because vulnerability suggests an insufficiency.  What I’m reading between the lines is power volatility and precariousness.  It is true that young people are not a homogenous group and quoting Furlong, youth should be contemplated as “a time of opportunity, or flux and transformation” (Furlong, 2013, p. 25).  But this is not the case for a significant segment of the youth population. 

Context ends up segregating them. 

Now this is where my hair stands on end.

What I find terribly disturbing is the absence and the nullification of the voices of young people who are disadvantaged and who believe that life has dealt them a weak hand.  In truth, these narratives surfaced victimisation, rejection and dismissal.

And Simon, who described himself as a low achiever, claims;

I feel so lonely. Day-in day-out it feels as if there is nothing in life for me.......

Now this is where the ‘Liam Debono’ case surfaces.

My claim is a simple one; the challenges that young people face is anything but a choice that they make for themselves.  In fact, research seems to indicate that young people seem to suggest disenchantment with social services, NGOs and a general lack of understanding by family and community.

Look at what Gianella, who is seeing through a jail term, says;

I feel so ashamed being in prison but the truth is that I know I have an addictive personality and didn’t get the necessary support at any stage of my life. ... The social work agency left me on my own...

Maybe the above applies for Liam Debono?

We all know, we all agree that the longing for social affiliation is a fundamental human need. Strong communities are those that hold fast to a code of social justice which is becoming more difficult in a world in which, absurdly, we are faced with mounting crises shaped by detachments.

Maybe the above applies for Liam Debono?

Indeed, young people are being tackled with countless struggles and other life challenges disenchanted by the system, de-personalization and a lack of interface between the individual and the community, victimized by a language of exclusion.  These young people are being cold-shouldered.

Maybe the above applies for Liam Debono?

What are we doing to young people who have had to deal with these life conditions portrayed by feelings of loneliness, anxiety, distress, pain and fear? The damaging impact is multiplied by the reactions and behaviours of others - indifference, antipathy, bullying, and not knowing how to respond.

Yet, young people in spite of this imposed vulnerability often display a strong desire to deal with the consequences of their helplessness and to rebuild their lives. Young people, feel the need for connection.

So whilst, I would like to reiterate, I am not at all and in any way justifying Liam Debono’s behavior, there are some or many of us who were lucky enough to have a supporting family, a school experience that worked for them, people around to comfort them in moments of aggravation and failures, role models that provided for a moral compass and the opportunity to develop soul and consciousness that is righteous. 

Some other have not. 

Maybe Liam Debono was one of them?

Perhaps Liam Debono embodies the reality that society is impotent with some of its members. Liam might have gone through the net, was invisible to our social services and there we go, the circles closes on him – and he becomes the culpable. 

No, we are the ones to blame; academia, social services and educators.  We have failed Liam and we are all responsible for the massacre and the pain that Constable Schembri has to face for the rest of his life. 

It is so laidback and convenient from the comfort of our homes to stand back and judge Liam Debono.  Who knows, maybe it would be good for the Defense to call in the teacher who knew that things were not right but did not take the necessary action, the headmaster/headmistress who saw him drift away but was more keen to have him not attend school rather than make it a point to provide him with support, to the way police officers and so many therapists who just left him to his own devices. 
You know what?  It is society that produces monstrous behaviour and then shoots down the ogre – it reads of scapegoating to me!

So once the jury, the judge and the justice system are done with Liam Debono, maybe it would be the right time to put welfare, education and welfare services on the Stand – to answer for the ‘villains’ we are fabricating. 


Who knows, if it worked the way it should have, Liam would be found not-guilty.  In any case, in my eyes, he surely is not at fault.

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