Special Report

Rehabbing Jihadists

Liberal hope -- delusion -- springs eternal.

By 2.10.09

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Every once in a while, just when you think you've seen all there is to see of the liberals' fecklessness, they surprise you again. This time it's the idea for replacing Guantanamo with a program to "rehabilitate jihadists."

The idea has surfaced as President Barack Obama's announced plans to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay by next January. This will "restore our respect in the world" and "prove that we live by our ideals of…" what? Of not incarcerating people who try to kill us? Well, never mind, there's supposed to be lots of torture going on down there. So let's do something different.

Exactly what? Well, there are still 240 hard-core jihadists down there. Nancy Pelosi doesn't want them moved to Alcatraz and most people feel the same. So what are we going to do with them?

The answer has come, "We'll rehabilitate them." The Saudis have a program they claim has a 90 percent success rate in turning jihadists into good citizens. It was described in the New York Times Magazine last November. "There are right jihads and there are wrong jihads," the instructor -- a pudgy, mild-mannered imam, was reported telling his class of a dozen or so sulking young men. These are the young warriors who went off to Iraq or Afghanistan, then became disillusioned -- often because they were asked to become suicide bombers. They have returned home, often by way of foreign prisons. Some were even veterans of Guantanamo.

"Some of our young people don't listen to the right scholars," the imam confided to Times contributor Katherine Zoepf. "First they start to think that they have the right to go to jihad at any time. After that, they start to think that we have the right to kill any non-Muslim. Then they start to say that our leaders are kuffar, infidels. After that they start to say that our scholars, too, are kuffar. Before long, they've declared war against the whole world" -- including, one might presume, their pudgy, mild-mannered instructors.

So instead of imprisoning them, the Saudis present them with a bundle of gifts, including a digital watch, and put them through two short months of instruction. Then the reformed former jihadists are presented with a car (often a Toyota) and helped by the Interior Ministry in finding an apartment. As much as possible, they also try to find them a wife. "Getting married stabilizes a man's personality," said the program administrator, in an observation that has been noted since the days of the Bible. If there is any moral hazard here -- people joining the program just for the benefits -- no one has yet noticed.

Not every rehabilitation has been a success. In January, Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri, formerly prisoner #372 at Gitmo, was identified in a jihad video as a senior official of al-Qaeda in Yemen, a group involved in attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and Syria. Standing beside him was Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, formerly prisoner #333. Both graduated from the Saudi program in 2007. When challenged, Saudi officials confessed that nine more graduates had also been arrested for subsequent terrorist activities. "When they were released from the program they were O.K., but in one way or another they were recruited again," explained Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Still, the Saudi record is better than Yemen, where -- as the Weekly Standard reported last week -- the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh actually seems to be funneling its rehab inmates back into the international jihad movement.

In pursuing the illusion that terrorists can be rehabilitated, President Obama and the Saudis are following a well trodden, centuries-old path of idealistic optimism. When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831, he was investigating a new system of prison reform for the French government. The word "penitentiary" is a 19th-century invention in which prisoners were put in solitary confinement so they could do penance for their crimes. (Many went insane instead.) The Blythedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne's gentle satire of 19th-century liberalism, features a character who spends his entire life trying to found a prison that will cure criminality.

The 1960s were a huge era of prison reform. Driven by the latest sociological fashion of "deviance theory," criminologists became convinced that jail inmates were only innocent "stumblers and bumblers" and that the "real criminals" were too smart to be apprehended. Prisons only turned the poor deviant bumblers into hardened criminals. The resulting "deprisonization" movement quickly triggered the greatest crime wave in American history, producing an additional 500,000 homicides from 1965 to 1995, when law enforcement finally began to assert itself again.

The public's dissatisfaction with prison reform reached a crescendo during the 1988 Presidential campaign when it became known that Willie Horton, a Massachusetts inmate convicted of killing a gas station attendant, had kidnapped and raped a Maryland woman while on a weekend furlough for prisoners serving life sentences without parole. The Lawrence Eagle Tribune had dug out the story, winning a Pulitzer Price in the process. When the Massachusetts legislature had tried to repeal the program, Governor Mike Dukakis vetoed it on the grounds that the furloughs were a legitimate "rehabilitation" effort. The revelation sunk Dukakis's presidential campaign.

The initial deflation of rehabilitation theory had actually comes nearer the outset, when Robert Martinson, a noted political scientist, was commissioned by New York State to find out the best regimen for reforming state prisoners. Martinson did a complete survey of all the studies ever written in English and all the experiments conducted anywhere in the world after 1945. His findings so shocked New York State officials that they refused to publish them. They even denied Martinson access to his own data, until he finally freed them with a court case.

Eventually published in the Public Interest in 1974, the article was entitled "Nothing Works." "[I]t is possible to give a rather bald summary of our findings," Martinson concluded. "With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism." Group therapy, occupational therapy, probation, parole, stamping out license plates -- all produced the same result. No matter what was tried, a predictable 65 percent of released prisoners return to crime after they were released. The only strategy that seemed to make any difference was psychotherapy. That increased the rate of recidivism.

Today the issue is pretty much settled. Few people -- even the most ardent civil libertarians -- make much of an argument that criminals can be reformed. The only thing that seems to work is passing the age of 35. If young criminals reach this milestone -- and especially if they settle and marry -- they may lead fairly normal lives.

But all this is predicated on a society where young men have a chance to lead normal lives. As Charles Murray has written so famously, most men in American society can be assured that if they "get a high school education, get married and get a job," they can lead a reasonably stable and productive life. Criminals, on the other hand, are young men who aren't satisfied with these options but go for the "big score" through burglary, robbery or other illegal activities such as dealing drugs. (Murder is usually incidental to any of these -- only a handful aspire to be professional killers.) Aging out of crime is the only successful rehabilitation program ever devised.

So what about Islam? Nearly every Moslem country practices polygamy, which produces a perpetual shortage of marriageable women. Young men are rarely ever in the presence of young women in social situations. Nearly all marriages are arranged, often to cousins. Differences in wealth aggravate this inequality, since suitors are expected to pay a bride price, the hallmark of polygamous societies. This is why women are veiled and hoarded by their families -- because they are valuable commodities.

As a result, every Islamic society has a large surplus of young males whose frustration and anger must be redirected. Jihad is the ideal solution, preferably exported. Every Moslem regime has an uneasy relationship with its young Muslim fanatics, who must be carefully pointed toward the West lest they turn on the regime itself. Saudi Arabia, with its great inequalities of wealth and the highest rate of polygamy, is the master at this strategy, perpetually exporting young men as Wahhabi missionaries or jihadists. "The majority [of jihadists] are always Saudis," one disgruntled veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines told the Times' Zoepf. It is no accident that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were from Saudi Arabia.

So now we're going to send Guantanamo prisoners to be rehabilitated in Saudi Arabia? What really needs reforming is Saudi society.

Nonetheless, American liberals are optimistic. When the Saudis claimed that only 10 percent of their rehabilitated jihadists have returned to the battle, one liberal commentator gushed, "Compared to our rate of 65 percent, that sounds pretty good!"

Maybe Dukakis did win after all.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.