One of the reasons given by Max Hill QC, the independent reviewer of anti-terrorist legislation, as to why not all British travellers returning from Syrian war-zones will be prosecuted – namely that many of them were merely naïve – is itself somewhat naïve.
What we are being asked to believe is that young people – but not so young as not to have reached the age of discretion – travelled to Syria without knowing very much about what they might find there, or what they might be asked to do. This is, among other things, an insult to their intelligence. Going to Syria is not like going on a day trip to Bognor Regis or to Eastbourne, or even to Torbay, where one finds more drug-taking than one expected.
In these days of almost continuous news, it passes belief that anyone interested enough to go to Syria – not an easy place to reach, after all – did not or does not know the kind of things that were and are going on there. It is not despite these things, but because of them, that the 850 young British decided to go. They were naïve only in the sense that we are all naïve about what we have not directly experienced for ourselves.
This is not to say, of course, that every last returnee should be prosecuted. Unthinking or automatic repression has rarely been successful in achieving its aim, and risks the creation of martyrs to a cause that is despicable. Unthinking or automatic leniency has different dangers: it creates the impression of weakness, fear and lack of determination. I should suspect anyone of false confidence who claimed to know for certain the indubitably correct way to approach the problem.
Some of those returning may genuinely regret ever having gone, and want nothing further to do with Islamism; others may carry within them the determination to carry on, but this time in Britain itself. Distinguishing the latter from the former will not necessarily be easy, and our security services will immediately be blamed if they fail to do so with the 100 per cent success with which, of course, the rest of us do our work. One can almost write in advance the outraged newspaper commentary about the failure of the security services to prevent an atrocity committed by a returnee from Syria.
The only way to be absolutely sure of preventing any such atrocity would be to lock up all returnees until they were no longer physically capable of performing one: and this, I think, no one would suggest doing.
Whatever the best approach to the problem, however, we should not be misled into a false philosophical anthropology by the comforting illusion that people are attracted to evil or to do what is wrong through naïvety. Mr Hill’s remark reminds me of the popular misconception about heroin addiction, according to which people become addicted to heroin by inadvertence.
This is simply not so. The vast majority of injecting addicts do not become addicts through naïvety, which is to say ignorance or unawareness. On the contrary, they are determined to become addicts, as is perfectly obvious from the most elementary considerations, which, however, are almost always overlooked.
They have to learn to disregard heroin’s undesirable side effects, such as nausea, which is very aversive; they have to learn where to obtain the drug and how to prepare it; they have to overcome the natural inhibition that most people have about sticking needles into themselves. Above all, they are not ignorant of the consequences of taking heroin, because most people who become addicts have the example of many other addicts all around them. They want to join the addicts, and see some kind of perverse glamour in doing so. They are not “hooked” by heroin, as they dishonestly put it; rather, they “hook” heroin; and they are heroin addicts because a heroin addict is what they want to be.
We seem to have forgotten a story that used to be well known, to the effect that forbidden fruit is attractive to us: just how forgotten is proved by the fact that intelligent and cultivated people can believe that young men and women join a well-publicised movement that beheads people and inflicts horrible cruelties, out of mere naïvety, and not from the inherent attraction to mankind of doing wrong.
In addition, we often believe that the extreme lengths to which people are prepared to go in pursuit of an ideal proves that the ideal must have some core of moral justification or seriousness about it. This is not so. People are more likely to go to extreme lengths to promote evil than good. We should therefore reflect a little more on our expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and not meekly accept the comforting notion of the naïvety of evil.
Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and retired prison doctor and psychiatrist.
His latest book is The Knife Went In: The Decline of the English Murder
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