WHEN former prime minister John Major said that, when it came to crime, society needed “to condemn a little more and understand a little less”, his words seemed to sum up just how out of touch his Conservative Party had become.
While Major suggested his more-stick-than-carrot approach, Labour was trying to seize the agenda on law and order, and sought to characterise the Tories as harsh, cruel and – crucially – unthinking. Shadow home secretary Tony Blair, on the other hand, pledged that his party would be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.
Blair’s compelling argument that if we truly wanted to create fewer victims we should not only punish those who had offended but tackle (some of) the root causes of criminal behaviour – poverty, neglect – made Major seem all the more thoughtless.
It was not necessary to be a hand-wringing liberal in order to see the sense in what the opposition was saying. In fact, like most successful New Labour ideas, this one appealed to the self-interest which afflicts us all: yes, we may invest in day centres and after-school clubs for those terrible scrotes from the scheme next door but just think how much safer that’ll make you, sitting in your semi, with your Ford Mondeo in the drive, if we can succeed in replacing the temptation to commit crime with the determination to get on in life.
They do say that the older we get the more intolerant we become but, 22 years after the Tories and Labour clashed over how we should treat offenders, I remain convinced by the case for tackling the deprivation that can catalyse a life of crime.
But, surely, some crimes are so horrific, so inhuman, that our revulsion smashes through our compassion. Surely, sometimes, the search for a grey area defies a natural reaction: one of righteous anger?
For months, we’ve been calling him “Jihadi John”, a curiously chummy nickname for a psychopathic murderer, but now we know his name is Mohammed Emwazi. Kuwait-born and London-raised, Emwazi has appeared in numerous videos released by the Islamist terror group Islamic State in which he stands behind a kneeling hostage – an aid worker, perhaps, or a journalist – a knife in his hand and a black balaclava covering his face. These videos end with the decapitation of the hostage. The depravity is absolute.
Yet, despite these videos and despite reports of IS atrocities including murder, rape and torture, there is a strain of British “liberal” thinking which seems unable fully to condemn.
When the writer Grace Dent last week suggested that three teenage girls who’d fled their homes in London to join IS killers in Syria should damned well stay there and lie in the beds they’d made for themselves, the reaction from some quarters was extraordinary. Couldn’t she – and anyone who agreed with her – see that these were innocent victims?
Dent found herself branded a racist and an Islamophobe for daring to suggest that anyone who’d been attracted to an organisation whose members rape little girls and throw gay men from towers to their deaths had forfeited any right to our compassion. Among the more bewildering responses was the suggestion that before condemning these teenagers we should make lists of the things we all did aged 15 and now regretted, as if bunking off school to drink cider in the park or shoplifting an Amy Winehouse CD might somehow be comparable to the active participation in IS’s campaign of slaughter.
When Emwazi was revealed to be the murderer in those videos, the same voices spoke up.
Asim Qureshi, research director of the group Cage – which describes itself as an “independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the war on terror” that “highlights and campaigns against state policies, striving for a world free from oppression and injustice” – explained that he had been in contact with Emwazi in 2012.
According to Qureshi, Emwazi felt that counterterrorism agents – then taking an interest in his activities – had attempted to criminalise him. Emwazi was incensed by his treatment.
Cage insists this is an explanation rather than an excuse, though it’s not hard to hear this as a most extreme and perverse instance of victim blaming: if the security services hadn’t suspected Emwazi of having terrorist links, he’d never have become a murderous terrorist.
The intellectual contortions required to reach this conclusion are, I am afraid, beyond my capabilities. Yet others are able quite easily to perform these mental gymnastics. For as long as I can remember, British and US foreign policy has been the quick and easy scapegoat for anyone who simply must remove from the perpetrators of Islamist terrorism at least some of their culpability.
Let’s think for a moment of some crime other than terrorist murder. Let’s think about the crime of rape.
What makes a man a rapist? What drives him to such an awful act?
Anger, yes. There must surely be anger, and hatred of women. But is that innate or does it come from somewhere else? Mightn’t it come from past abuse, or from some perceived rejection?
We could, if we wanted, worry about that. We could look at the rapist and say, yes, what he did was monstrous but, of course, it’s not that simple. We could shake our heads and wonder about the experiences which might have shaped the sort of man who would commit such a crime.
But, quite rightly, we don’t. We don’t do that because nothing – absolutely nothing – can ever excuse or explain away rape. It is a crime that requires our condemnation and nothing less (and for which sentencing remains shockingly light).
Emwazi deserves no more understanding than the rapist we despise.
After every atrocity, every murder, we could expend our energies searching for the butterfly that first flapped its wings.
Or we could – as we should in the case of Mohammed Emwazi – condemn fully. «