Trapped by a whale tusk and fire extinguisher

Ordinary heroes: A Polish chef, a convicted murderer and a kitchen porter named Mohammed. © Ketts News

Is anyone to blame? Usman Khan killed two brilliant, young people who believed in helping criminals, then was cornered by members of the public — before the political accusations started.

Saskia Jones was a 23-year-old Cambridge graduate who was training to specialise in victim support. Jack Merritt was a 25-year-old Cambridge graduate passionate about prison reform and rehabilitation.

On Friday, both were stabbed to death by a convicted terrorist who had been released early from jail.

The killer, 28-year-old Usman Khan from Stoke, had only served half his 16-year sentence. After wounding three others in the horrendous attack in central London’s grand Fishmonger’s Hall, he was chased and captured on London Bridge by members of the public.

One of them wielded the £30,000 ivory tusk of a narwhal, ripped from a display in the hall. Another aimed the jet from a fire extinguisher in his face. Within five minutes, Khan, wearing a fake suicide vest, had been shot dead by police.

Instantly, a story of innocent “angel” victims and plucky British heroism began shaping itself in the media.

Khan’s attackers, caught on multiple different videos, were “shining examples of resourcefulness and bravery”. The whale horn was “a lance”. The killer, dead on the pavement, was depicted as a (somewhat bedraggled) dragon. Somewhere on social media two superheroes were born — “Captain Narwhal and X-tinguisher”.

The bearded Muslim and all his kind were portrayed as foreign, freedom-hating fanatics. The Left-wing liberals who let killers out of jail were to blame. The police marksmen who executed Khan were paragons of ruthless justice. “Boris Johnson vows to lock terrorists up and throw away the key,” gleefully trumpeted The Sunday Times.

The problem: this was a parody of the truth.

First, the victims themselves believed deeply in prisoner rehabilitation. “My son, Jack, who was killed in this attack, would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily,” said David Merritt.

Second, Khan’s attackers were not heroes from central casting. One was a Polish chef. Another was a kitchen porter called Mohammed. And one was a man named James Ford, who had admitted murdering a woman with the mental age of a 15-year-old in 2004.

Third, Khan himself was not a foreigner. He was British born and bred in Cobridge, Stoke-on-Trent.

Fourth, the so-called Left-wing liberals who let Khan and his kind out of jail last December were the Conservative Government. There are heated arguments, currently, about the fact that automatic release was originally a Labour policy. But the release happened on the Tory watch.

Decidedly awkward. Complex. Certainly not a set of facts that easily points to a conclusion.

The tragedy of Friday’s London Bridge attack has left two innocent victims dead and three wounded. Several members of the public behaved with huge courage. The police and emergency services were exemplary. The politicians bicker and argue. One young terrorist was shot dead.

But is anyone really to blame?

New blitz

Of course, they are, say many commentators. This was a catastrophic failure of the criminal justice system. Proof of that is the desperate scramble to fix things. Johnson has admitted that the 74 convicted terrorists back on the streets are now being closely monitored. One was re-arrested yesterday on suspicion of plotting an attack. The Government has to take responsibility for these things. We have every right to blame them for what went wrong .

That is far too simplistic, say others. Just as the story of the incident itself avoids crass stereotypes, so does the question of what went wrong refuse pat answers. Mistakes were made by different ministers in different governments over several decades. Johnson and his team were nothing to do with it. Blaming people is a waste of time. The key question is: who is capable of sorting out the mess?

You Decide

  1. Which is more effective? Simply punishing people for doing wrong, or trying to teach them how to be better?
  2. Should all convicted terrorists be given life sentences? Or does everyone, including those who represent a threat to the general public, deserve a second chance?

Activities

  1. Think of a time when you were punished for doing something bad. Form into pairs and discuss whether that punishment worked.
  2. Come up with five questions you would ask a convicted terrorist to check whether they were ready for release from prison. List them on a piece of paper.

Some People Say...

“Terror attacks always reveal the very best of humanity, even when they expose the very worst.”

Stig Abell, author of How Britain Really Works

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Usman Khan took part in deradicalisation programmes (teaching those with extreme and violent religious or political ideas to adopt more moderate and nonviolent views), and had not breached any rules since being released a year ago. He was supposed to be wearing a tag at the time of the attack.
What do we not know?
If Khan was working with anyone else, or whether the attack was part of any wider plot. We do not know if he was being monitored by MI5, or how much personal contact he had with specialised officials during his time in prison.

Word Watch

Prison reform
The attempt to improve conditions inside prisons, establish a much more effective system of punishment, or alternatives to imprisonment.
Rehabilitation
Re-educating and retraining those who commit crime. The goal is to re-integrate offenders back into society through psychological help, education and work training.
Narwhal
A marine mammal that looks like a seal with a unicorn horn. It is often depicted in mythology.
Plucky
Brave, fearless.
Lance
Steel-tipped spear.
Bedraggled
Untidy.
Paragons
Perfect examples.
Pretext
An excuse.
Draconian
Very harsh or severe.
From central casting
When someone has the appearance or behaviour typical for a particular job or position.
The Tory watch
When the Conservatives were in government.
Crass
Stupid and insensitive.
Pat
As an adjective, pat answers or explanations sound as though they have been used many times before and are not sincere.

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