There is an important distinction between justice and revenge, which is well understood by those with the greatest claim to either – such as the families of the victims of the two infamous British jihadis most recently rounded up in Syria, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh.
Isis’s rapidly evaporating “caliphate” has left a few of these most barbarous terrorists the subject of mopping-up operations, especially by Syrian Kurdish groups who have chosen to hand over their captives to the Americans to deal with.
The temptation – and it will be one no doubt felt most fiercely in the Trump White House – will be to deploy summary justice and incarcerate the pair at Guantanamo Bay or to some sort of kangaroo court in what’s left of Syria before they’re shot or hanged. If not that, then they are likely to end up pleading in an American trial. That would mean a possible death penalty, depending on what jurisdiction they are transported to and what view the court takes of them.
Many will feel, understandably, that men capable of such medieval barbarity deserve little more. No doubt some would be content to see them tortured or beheaded. In any case these are variations of one thing: revenge, a corrosive urge that will only weaken our own civilisation and benefit the death cult of Isis. It is to be resisted.
The victims are perfectly clear that justice has to be done, and the values of civilised societies upheld precisely to undermine the case that the extremists make that no Muslim can ever be offered a fair trial in an angry, vengeful Western tribunal. That is not true, and must be seen to be untrue. No matter that Isis had not the slightest notion of fairness, justice or mercy in its reign of terror, a perversion of Islam that has done untold damage.
The world needs urgently to reclaim the notion of justice and the peaceful values of Islam from those who seek only war and conflict. For that, after all, was the point of their shocking tactics of beheadings and burning prisoners of war alive, and of Osama bin Laden in 9/11: to make their enemies still angrier, and to unleash a religious or race war across the world. Too many fell for their provocations, just as was intended, and the rubble in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan before is testament to that.
The cruelty they inflicted was not pure sadism, but a cool calculation of the effect on the minds of their enemies.
Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who spent 10 months as an Isis captive, has spoken movingly about his suffering, and warned that any attempt to deny the men of their human rights would only feed Isis’s claims of victimisation by the West.
It is conceited to believe that only in the UK can they face a fair trial, but it is certainly a suitable location, where judicial execution was abolished long ago. The case is complicated anyway, because although it is their place of origin, Britain has now disowned them and cancelled their citizenship. The principle though is plain; they should be given all the facilities they denied to their captives: proper access to lawyers, evidence and humane treatment in captivity, including the right to practise their faith, or their version of it. Most likely they would simply ignore the proceedings, but that is their choice and they cannot be forced to participate. Still, at the conclusion justice would be secured, taking into account all of the circumstances.
There is an element of retribution, as there always is criminal justice, but the overriding consideration is the safety of the public and the eventual rehabilitation – though it seems far-fetched here – of the accused.
Now that Isis is being routed it would be very stupid to gift them a much needed propaganda coup to create martyrs out of their remaining “soldiers”. Although this pair is notorious, there are scores of other misguided fighters who volunteered to join Isis and travelled to Syria and Iraq. We know that they will, sooner or later, attempt to return to Britain and bring with them the threat they represent to life. The danger is real, and the temptation to simply exterminate them on the battlefield or by drone strike is very real. Indeed such a view has been expressed by at least one British minister, and “Jihadi John” was dealt with in just such a way.
There are particular reasons why such extrajudicial executions happen in war time, but, in the case of this pair, there is no excuse. No trial is too good for Kotey and Elsheikh.