Condemn the terrorist but pity the mother and father

It is pretty tough, and rightfully so, to feel sorry for those who think becoming a terrorist is a good idea. These are choices made and bad choices sometimes have bad consequences. Those who recognise this realise that there is a price to pay for making a stupid decision.

Then again there are those who say ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’. While part of me – maybe it is my Catholic upbringing – agrees with this, part of me has a real hard time doling out group hugs to terrorists who raped children and threw gays off high buildings. Call me an ogre: I’m ok with that.

What, then, do we do with the parents of terrorists? I suppose it depends. If you happen to be Ahmed Said Khadr and Maha Al Samnah, progenitors of the Khadr brood of terrorists, I am ok with social exclusion and animosity (and, surprise, surprise, not in favour of $10.5 million payouts). If you are instead the unfortunate folks of a Canadian who, either unbeknownst to you or despite your best efforts, ended up dead abroad or in a Kurdish jail, maybe we should be a little more charitable.

I made an appearance this morning on the CBC program The Current along with my friend, University of Waterloo professor Lorne Dawson. We followed an appearance by John Letts, father of ‘Jihadi Jack’, a British-Canadian citizen held in northern Syria after being caught by Kurdish forces. Jack had traveled to the region in 2014 – why? Well, according to this dad he went to do humanitarian work and was profoundly naive – and stupid for doing so. According to others, he left to join Islamic State (IS). Mr. Letts wants the Canadian government to bring his kid home. The Canadian government is dithering on what to do.

As much as I see the senior Letts as naive as his son, I could not help but feel for him as he told his story. His life is a ‘living nightmare’ as he described it. His son is seen as a terrorist; he and his wife cannot get jobs; he has been charged with material support for terrorism for sending Jack money. Only an automaton would not have some sympathy for a man who is living the consequences of his idiotic son and who is doing everything he can to save him.

A similar story is told by a German woman whose son went to join IS but, unlike Jihadi Jack, her son is dead.  The pain she feels is real.

When I was at CSIS the most challenging interviews I did were with the mothers of two dead Canadian jihadis. For those who think we were acting cruelly, we needed to talk to them first and foremost to ascertain whether there were others like their sons who were either overseas or planning acts of terrorism here (that is, after all, what CSIS does). We knew the importance of networks and if the moms could shed any light on their sons’ friends it could have assisted in our investigations. As a strategic analyst specialising in radicalisation, I particularly wanted to know more about the young men’s journey to violent extremism to afford me a greater insight into the phenomenon. I can still picture both women as they grieved over their sons, in the full realisation that they would never get their bodies back for mourning and burial.

I know that there are always signs of radicalisation and that these signs are often missed (“I didn’t think it meant anything”; “I didn’t want to get him in trouble”; “I thought it was a phase”). Hindsight is usually 20-20 as they say.

At the same time none of this is the parents’ ‘fault’. Their grown children made up their own minds, perhaps under the influence of others, but we all have free will and have to own our choices.

None of this entails we have to ostracise the mothers and fathers. All of us who have raised kids know how hard it is and how our offspring make dumb moves. Whether a kid became a drug addict or a criminal or a terrorist, it is a good idea for us to spare a thought for the parents. No, do not absolve the children for their life paths. But cut those who remained behind some slack.

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