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.
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