For and Against: Are terrorists beyond redemption?


Oliver Barsby argues against

In November 2019, in the build-up to an election, the whole of Britain stopped to pay respect to victims of a terror attack. However, within hours this tragedy was being used by Boris Johnson to push his political goals. I find this despicable - bottom-of-the-barrel politics, especially after the comments made by Jack Merritt’s father who stated his son “would not wish for his death to be used as the pretext for more Draconian sentences”.

It is obvious that Britain has a terrorism problem, but UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s stance that we should ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ is dangerous, misinformed, and counterproductive. There has been a lot of myths and misinformation dispelled about how prisoners are released, and so it is important to clarify that prisoners are not just automatically released. No matter the prisoner, unless they have a life sentence or the Government is now in favour of undermining the Rule of Law, they will have to be released eventually. Even then, those who committed terror-related crimes are not just left to roam the streets of London alone. They are heavily restricted and monitored. Focusing on whether Usman Khan was released too early is missing the point. Instead, it is about how the British system failed to de-radicalise this terrorist.

Locking people up isn’t cheap - it costs £40,000 per year to hold a prisoner. Under the Conservative government, prison funding has fallen 40%, and yet they have appealed for support on locking individuals up indefinitely. Unless the PM has found the fabled ‘Magic Money Tree’, it is impossible to see just where the funding would come from to increase sentences without the Conservatives raising taxes.

Going back to the 40% cut in funding under austerity, this means there are less prison staff, fewer probation officers, and fewer deradicalization programmes. These programmes are necessary if prisons are to not only prevent repeat offences when prisoners are released, but also to prevent offences when terrorists are on the inside. Contrary to popular belief, British prisons are not healthy or safe places. It is a haven for hardened criminals to prey on the most vulnerable in society, and without such crucial funding, prisoners (and therefore terrorists) can continue their activities from inside prison, using smuggled phones to run operations, or even converting other prisoners to follow their ideologies. Slashing public service budgets, or creating for-profit prisons makes it harder to quash such activity.

Talk of locking people up and throwing away the key is a policy straight out of the Trump playbook. These longer sentences may offer short-term solutions and electoral success, but it inevitably It breeds hatred. It will turn those who are locked up by it into martyrs and potentially radicalise those close to them, increasing the number of terrorist attacks that happen. This, for example, happened in Northern Ireland, with the public turning against the government and creating idols out of prisoners who were interned during the Troubles.

Right-wing critics often like to portray terrorists as religious fanatics incapable of reason, when, as religious studies experts such as Rena Aslan, highlight, this isn’t the case at all, and unlike Michael Gove and climate-change deniers, I believe we should listen to these experts. Instead, terrorists are more motivated by societal pressures, alienation and disillusionment with their life. If you give offenders incentives to be good, such as giving them education and hope of a life away from poverty and hate, these individuals may come out of prison rehabilitated. For those who mock rehabilitation programmes as a waste of time and money, I should point out that one of the men to apprehend Usman Khan was John Crilly, a former prisoner convicted for murder, who was released after successful rehabilitation at the University of Cambridge, where he met Jack Merritt, the young man who was helping to run the rehabilitation programme.

Of course, there is no way to know whether these programmes will work, but as Boris Johnson alleges that he will be funding indefinite detention of prisoners a-la-Guantanamo, why not fund de-radicalisation schemes instead? Should we not instead, as David Merritt wrote, “focus on rehabilitation not revenge”?

Roberto White argues in favour

On 29 November 2019, Usman Khan, a deranged terrorist from Stoke-On-Trent stabbed five people, leaving two with fatal injuries. This was not a random act - Khan had been arrested in 2010 on terrorism charges relating to an Al-Qaeda sponsored plot that targeted the London Stock Exchange and other high-profile targets. So how was it that Usman Khan was released before serving his full sentence?

When Khan was convicted in 2012, the trial judge gave him an indeterminate imprisonment for public protection (IPP) as he was believed to have long-term plans for terrorist activity. However, when they appealed in 2013, the chair of the appeal court argued that they posed no operational threat, and so he was ultimately given a 16-year determinate sentence, meaning that after eight years he would become eligible for release. After serving less than seven years of his sentence, Khan perpetrated the London Bridge stabbing. Thankfully, those sentencing rules have been scrapped, but it does raise the question on what methods the government should adopt to adequately deal with convicted terrorists.

The Conservative government has taken steps in the right direction. In April 2019, new laws published under the Counterterrorism and Border Security Act came into force, which included longer sentences for criminals, and ending automatic release for convicted terrorists. Moreover, this October, the Sentencing Council published some proposals that would increase the sentence levels for “the most serious examples of offending”, including the encouragement of terrorism, and the collection of terrorist information. The Council recommended doubling the minimum jail sentence from five to ten years for those convicted of this offence. Lastly, following the 29th November attack, Boris Johnson stated how we cannot continue with the failures of the past and re-emphasised the need to end the system of automatic release. However, although these are commendable steps, I believe that the fairest and most effective way to deal with convicted terrorists would be the re-introduction of the death penalty.

Although I firmly believe that if you have been convicted on terrorism charges you should be imprisoned for the rest of your life with no further care, there are some who would approach the issue from a more sympathetic and rehabilitative standpoint. They would argue that we should not ‘throw away the key’ per se, instead we should try to help the terrorist become ‘good’ again. Unfortunately, this simply does not work. In the UK, there are two types of rehabilitation programs: voluntary (done inside the prison) and mandatory (done upon release). Usman Khan took part in both, yet he still killed two people and injured three others on London Bridge. Furthermore, part of the rehabilitation scheme is the de-radicalisation of these terrorists. However, as John Horgan (Georgia State University) says, these schemes only work if the prisoners are committed to changing their ways. This creates a very narrow scope within which rehabilitation is possible, demonstrating that this approach is not a good use of resources.

Moreover, we must recognise that these individuals who have committed or helped to commit an act of terrorism have made the choice to hurt our citizens and rally against our cherished values. Terrorists seek to create chaos and fear, undermining the institutions of our country. Bearing this in mind, why should we ever consider investing time and money in someone who actively acts against our interests? They have committed a crime and so should pay for it like every other criminal does. When a murderer is convicted and sent to prison, we don’t think of ways to ensure they recognise that murder is wrong, and their actions had greater consequences than they might have realised. No, we acknowledge that they have made the choice of breaking the law and they should suffer the consequences. The same principle applies to terrorists: once they have committed an act of terrorism they should be harshly punished, not viewed with empathy.

Ultimately, adopting the view that we should try and rehabilitate terrorists is simply redundant. Whether it be an Islamic terrorist rallying against ‘Western Imperialism’ or an Islamophobic white supremacist, we as a society have a duty to ensure that those who hurt us are adequately punished for their actions.

Image - Unsplash

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