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‘Rehab’ of terrorists: Beyond the rhetoric

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Special to Arabian Post

|By Alaa Alghamdi| The controversy raging in the world media over the Mohammed bin Nayef Centre/ Care Centre for the rehabilitation of jihadi terrorists brings up basic questions regarding justice and the right course of action. It is perhaps not surprising that such polarization has occurred regarding opinions on this (by all accounts, successful) program. To accept its efficacy and its ethics involves nothing less than a profound paradigm shift regarding how we view justice. Yet, this is a shift that I believe is long overdue – not just with regard to the treatment of terrorists, but the role of punishment and rehabilitation in general.

Throughout much of the history of civilization justice has been retributive. You steal, you lose a hand; you take someone’s life, and you lose your own. In part, retributive justice aims to remove dangerous elements from society by force. But most of its function is as a deterrent. (It is not so much that one can’t steal with only one hand; it’s that losing a hand is a painful and devastating price to pay for small material gain.) While society in general has moved away from physical punishment, prison sentences serve much the same dual purpose – partly ensuring the safety of society by removing criminal elements, and partly a deterrent to committing crime.

The problem with this retributive model of justice is that it is only partly effective. It is a crude mechanism that has really done nothing to reduce crime rates, although, it may be argued, it has successfully removed some dangerous individuals from society. But it is limited. Imprisonment without education and rehabilitation does little but produce individuals who are unable to reintegrate themselves into society, and therefore have little choice but to continue a life of crime. In some cases, particularly when offenders are young, they are actually more likely to re-offend if imprisoned.

So, all over the civilized world, new models are emerging, and everywhere that they emerge they encounter criticism from those still mired in that old retributive paradigm of justice. Why would we ‘reward’ criminals with ‘cushy’ facilities and counselling at the taxpayer’s expense? This is the most common argument that we hear.

I have yet to hear of a single case in which an individual commits a crime in order to gain access to ‘cushy’ surroundings or a counsellor. So the idea that these facilities function as a ‘reward’ is questionable at best.

Rather, rehabilitative justice considers the fact that criminal behaviour, including terrorism, did not emerge in a vacuum. Individuals have responsibility for their choices and actions, but we are all social creatures. The roots of wrongdoing are profoundly personal and psychological, and also, profoundly social. The young terrorist, typically, is a person who has not had effective parenting or a feeling of belonging to a cohesive group. He encounters a charismatic leader, usually while he is still young and immature, and is drawn to the sense of purpose and belonging that such a leader seems to offer. His susceptibility is directly related to his vulnerability and the lack of positive social structures in his life.

The above description is a generalization, of course. But what is consistently true is that individuals are not simply and inexplicably ‘evil’; rather, they, like all of us, are the result of a complex convergence of factors.

A program that attempts to unravel and address these contributing factors is, surely, a benefit to the individual and the society as a whole.