If we suspect someone is a lost cause, is it naïve to try to reform them and stupid to release them? Usman Khan went to jail in 2012 for his role in a terror plot and the judge thought he was a “serious jihadist”. He was given a type of sentence specifically created so that someone could be imprisoned indefinitely – but the sentence was abolished, he appealed, was given 16 years instead and, bizarrely, he was out on licence by 2018.
He must have been monitored but he persuaded someone to let him go to London to attend a conference, where he pulled out a knife and stabbed two people to death. In a sick twist, the conference was on prisoner rehabilitation.
Khan exploited the loopholes in our justice system and the kindness of men and women who just wanted to help, which leads some to conclude that he should never have been let out at all. Terrorists, they say, are too great a risk. Their target is so broad and it’s so easy to do harm, making it impossible to guard a released fanatic 24/7. Plus, some believe, “once a terrorist, always a terrorist”, because the motivation is an ideology and ideologies get under the skin; no amount of therapy will ever remove it. Nigel Farage had an interesting turn of phrase in an election debate. Khan, he said, “had the jihadi virus”. Lock ’em up and throw away the key.
The problem is that this attitude runs counter to Western philosophy since at least the 17th century. Many of us have been taught to think that man isn’t born bad and even when he becomes bad he can be turned back, hence the invention of the prison. Prisons have been developed to serve a threefold purpose: to isolate dangerous persons from the community, to punish in order that justice be done, and to reform to save the culprit. The last ambition – to fix a broken person – says as much about ourselves as it does the prisoner. We refuse to accept that change is impossible because it would imply that our own nature is beyond alteration, and if that’s the case then why bother to aspire to be better? We cannot allow ourselves to be defined by genetics or misfortune.
The desire to heal the prisoner, even to rehabilitate the terrorist, is thoroughly Christian. It’s no different to trying to save the soul of a sinner. And if we feel pity even for the worst person facing cruel punishment, it’s because sadism contradicts the teaching that we are all (without exception) born in God’s image and thus due kindness. It also reminds us instinctively of Christ’s torture. Our Messiah was a prisoner. A political one in fact.
All that said, one of the problems with the modern justice system is that it can feel as though prison is there more for the benefit of the prisoner than society.
Throwing therapy at them and letting them out early undermines the two purposes of prison other than reform: security and punishment. Usman Khan slipped through a hole in the fence of Western philosophy, with horrendous consequences.
As I write, I’m on my way to see Sir Roger Scruton, the wonderful conservative philosopher, be awarded a medal by Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary – in honour of his contribution to the fight against communism. This might be the most right-wing afternoon of my life.
Is Mr Orbán a bad fellow? The British media reports that he is a dangerous nationalist, something out of the 1930s, and it’s good to be sceptical of populists. But I’m also very sceptical of the media. If you read the American papers, you’ll discover that Britain is voting between a racist radical on the one hand and a racist radical on the other but those familiar with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn find this a bit of a stretch. Along with the depiction of Britain as either a caliphate in the making (Fox News) or a xenophobic basket case crashing out of the European Union (New York Times).
Then there was the character assassination of Sir Roger by the New Statesman, which reported an interview in such a way that misrepresented his views. The magazine has since apologised and published a joint statement with Sir Roger.
If the New Statesman reports that a foreign leader is an authoritarian, it may well be true – but the well has been poisoned and many will be less likely to believe it. This is the damage that perceptions of bias are doing to our politics.
The time will come when a genuine crook or thug is elected and, because of years of catastrophising or disputed coverage, the media will cry wolf but millions won’t believe it.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor