Do we think that putting 21 year-olds in prison for life will make us safer? Will it deter others in their situation or further radicalize them? I suggest that the latter is more likely and our over reactive punitive strategy is counterproductive.
Years ago the columnist Clarence Page wrote, “I once heard a teen age counselor say, ‘If you want to prevent girls from getting pregnant, don’t just give them a condom; give them a future.’”
A future. That is what we should be working to offer these vulnerable and impressionable young people.
Richard Engel in his book And Then All Hell Broke Loose describes an alternative strategy employed by, of all people, Saudia Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia caught on to the threat early on and, with its vast resources, was determined to prevent a new generation of extremists, battle-hardened in Iraq, from returning to the Saudi kingdom. The government set up a rehabilitation program for jihadists and released Gitmo detainees. The Saudi approach was similar to the kind of tough love used in alcohol and drug rehab facilities in the States.
Dr. Turki al-Otyan, one of the program’s forty psychologists, said the radicals were mostly “followers” who were often stirred into action by their feelings, not their intellects. “They are not confident. They feel depression, they see emotional things, they cry.”
In short, they were hotheaded and broken men, and the program was trying to put them back together again. “It’s very important to bring them back to society, to let them settle down, to let them live a normal life,” (Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Hadlaq , the program’s director) said. “We try to find jobs for them. We encourage them to get married-as a matter of fact; we help them financially with their weddings. . . . If a man gets married, he will be busy with his wife, with his kids, he will think of other needs. And we think that’s very important emotionally.”
I submit that attitude should be a large part of our strategy in combating terrorism. Telling marginalized youth to just say “NO” is not enough.We need to tell our story and offer hopeful alternatives to joining terrorist groups.Locking them up does not help combat terrorism or make us safer. In fact it will do just the opposite.