OPINION: Condemnation evades issue

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

The dilemma that the now ex-Liberal Democrat frontbencher, Jenny Tonge, faced when asked at a recent public meeting about Palestinian suicide bombers reminds me of one that many of us in the third sector confront all too often. Invited to condemn suicide bombers, the MP for Richmond said that she did not condone their actions but understood what might drive them to it.

She was not - as far as I can judge - trying to justify being a suicide bomber. That gospel of hatred is preached only by a handful of religious fundamentalists whose grip on Islam is loose. The Koran itself specifically rules out actions that would cause collateral damage. Instead she was clumsily groping for a human understanding of why anyone would kill themselves and others by detonating a bomb strapped around their waist.

Only by understanding, after all, can we identify the real causes and, please God, stop this horror. Those who say that you must only condemn offer little practical hope of a solution and an end to this wicked carnage.

I wrote last week about visiting a prison and how some of the inmates had ended up there. I've been talking about it to others since and as I outlined what I saw as the underlying causes of criminal behaviour - poor education, chaotic homes, drug addiction, mental health problems and so on - several people have stopped me in my tracks and said "but they are criminals and you must condemn their crimes".

It is a point well made and one that it is all too easy to lose sight of. But equally we can stray too far in the other direction. And as we know from our experience of trying to make individuals better citizens by simply punishing them in prison, they just come out and do the same again.

The balance is a hard one to achieve. With such emotive subjects as Palestinian suicide bombers, it can be nigh on impossible, as Jenny Tonge has discovered.

But that does not mean that any of us who work to improve this world can avoid addressing such truly tough questions.

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