Another attack has hit France – this one is particularly heinous, the murder of an 85-year old priest – and the critics are out in full force, all of whom know what is wrong with France and what the French should do about it. I certainly would not want to be French President Hollande or Prime Minister Valls or anyone in the French police or security services. The sheer number of attacks and the horrific casualty toll has sapped whatever confidence France’s citizens have in those who are supposed to keep them safe.
I am not interested in rehashing the arguments put forward purporting to explain “Why France?” – none of which by the way are comprehensive – but I do want to look at one aspect of the latest attack. According to the New York Times, one of the terrorists was not only known to French security agencies – he had tried to travel to Syria twice – but had been jailed. He was released in March of this year despite the objections of the prosecuting lawyers and subject to strict conditions, including the wearing of an electronic monitoring bracelet. Nevertheless, he and an accomplice were able to enter the church in St. Étienne du Rouvray, take hostages and cowardly kill Fr. Jacques Hamel. As a side note, how can Islamic State, which has claimed the attack state that a “soldier of Islam” bravely killed a defenceless octogenarian?
In light of this information the hue and cry is all about why a man with this pedigree was allowed out of prison. Surely French authorities should have known better and kept him behind bars. If they had done so, the Rev Hamel would still be alive.
I have no insight into why the terrorist was let out but I do know that French penal authorities have a Herculean task before them. Between 60 and 80 percent of France’s prison population of 68,000 are Muslim (wildly disproportionate to their 6-8% of the general population) and there are thousands of inmates convicted of terrorist offences. France has an out of control prison radicalisation problem and is struggling with what to do. Prisons have in effect become radicalisation incubators. The old debate on whether to keep all the terrorists together – where they reinforce each other – or spread them around – where they infect others – is ongoing. There is no simple solution.
It would be easy to suggest that terrorist prisoners remain locked up for life. Their crimes and plots are designed to cause fear and terror and we cannot allow these people to undermine the societies we have built. Incarceration comes with a cost however. I don’t know how much it takes to keep a prisoner jailed in France but in Canada the annual expense is CDN$113,000 per inmate (in the US it is US$117,000). Do the math – with 68,000 prisoners the burden on the public purse is enormous. Then again how do we measure the value of someone killed by a terrorist? This is a debate worth having.
What about rehabilitation and rehabilitation? There are programmes out there which have claimed success at treating terrorists and “undoing” their radicalisation. I commend these efforts but it is far too early to determine whether these approaches work. In any event there are far too few people engaged in these programmes.
Look, I have no problem with putting the worst of the worst in prison, throwing away the key and ensuring that they never threaten society ever again. On the other hand, I have also met and spoken at length with two convicted terrorists in Canada whom I believe are actually on the path to reform. They deserve a chance, carefully monitored of course, to prove their good faith. Decisions must be made on a case by case basis and that too requires resources and funding.
As with most things in life there is no black and white answer. Many people with impressive backgrounds have stated repeatedly that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. So while we must do everything possible to identify, monitor, disrupt, try, convict and incarcerate those with violent intent we must also come up with creative solutions to head the radicalisation beast off before it gets its hooks into our fellow citizens. There is no other option.