The debate surrounding the London Bridge attack last week, in which two people were killed and three injured by 28 year old Usman Khan has taken on dimensions more nuanced that those which follow other acts of terrorism in the UK, since the wider question of role and potential of rehabilitation in society has come to the forefront of the discussion, beyond the usual specificity of radicalisation.
A poignant and essential element of this is that the two victims who died, 25 year old Jack Merritt and 23 year old Saskia Jones worked for Learning Together; Mr Merritt was a co-ordinator and Ms Jones was among the volunteers at a workshop which Khan was attending, in which university students and prison-based students come together to share experiences and learning. Behind the idea of Learning Together, is that of prisoner rehabilitation and the hope for self-betterment.
It is this element that has brought nuance to the otherwise especially reactionary response to the attack, particularly pronounced since Khan was convicted in 2012 of plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange and build a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. After his conviction in 2012 he was given an indeterminate jail sentence, with a minimum term of eight years, which was then replaced with a 16-year, fixed-term sentence and an extended period on license.
David Merritt, the father of Jack Meritt, has been vocal in making sure his son’s work and beliefs on the potential of rehabilitation do not get drowned out, and protesting against the fact that the attack has been used to reinforce the worldview his son fought against. Writing in the Guardian, he wrote that his son “would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against.” What he fought against was a “world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences, or convict people on joint enterprise. Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. Where we do not consistently undermine our public services, the lifeline of our nation. Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that.”
David Merrit tweeted an explicit response to the front pages of populist right wing newspapers the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, which read “New blitz on freed jihadis” and “Boris blitz on freed jihadis begins”, for using his son’s death to “promote vile propaganda” and everything Jack has stood against “hatred, division, ignorance.”
Don’t use my son’s death, and his and his colleague’s photos – to promote your vile propaganda. Jack stood against everything you stand for – hatred, division, ignorance. https://t.co/R8LO16lugk
— David Merritt (@butwhatifitsall) December 1, 2019
Questions over the potential of rehabilitation, and the state’s ability to do so have also been brought up by Khan’s lawyer, Vajahat Sharif, who has claimed that Khan had come to realise that violent extremism was wrong, and that he had asked for an intervention by a deradicaliser several times during his time in jail. Sharif suggested that “Probation do a good job with conventional offenders but they can’t deal with ideological offenders,” and that a flaw in the policy meant an absence of substantial ideological evaluation upon his release, which could have spotted he Khan was not robust enough to withstand further grooming.
But this case has also taken a special significance because of its timing. This is the type of incident to be easy fodder for the right-wing Conservative Party’s tough “law and order” agenda. In its manifesto for the upcoming election, they have promised increased use of stop and search, longer sentences for some violent and sex offenders, and creating 10,000 new prison places. Indeed, in light of the London Bridge Attack, incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to toughen up prison sentences. In the final leader’s debate which took place this past Friday, when asked about the balancing of needs of security against human rights in the wake of the attack, Johnson said “I still think its wrong that someone like Usman Khan, who was sentenced to 21 years or 16 years plus five on license… should have been out automatically on eight years when the judge, when he was first convicted, made it clear that he was a very serious jihadi.”
In response, Merritt accused Johnson of making “political capital” from his son’s death, on the twitter thread below:
#LeadershipDebate points missed (or deliberately avoided by Johnson): we don’t know all the facts about this case yet, and we won’t know for some time – the inquest could take up to 2 years. We don’t know why Khan killed, or what, if anything could have been done differently 1/
— David Merritt (@butwhatifitsall) December 7, 2019
While the timing of the attack, in the run of the election, and the nature of the attack, that it was by an individual previously convicted of terrorism, may be all the features which encourage a “lock them away and throw away the key” response, the beliefs of the victims on rehabilitation, and a father adamant to continue a son’s legacy, has given the debate surrounding this attack a balance usually absent from discussions which follow incidents like this.