Deborah Orr: How bright, privileged young people can turn into murderous sociopaths

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We may feel repulsion when the perpetrators of awful crimes remain "stony-faced" in the witness box. But we are repelled even more when they cry tears of pity for themselves. Yeshie Girma was sentenced to 15 years this week, after she was found guilty under the Terrorism Act of withholding information from the authorities. Girma had had some knowledge of her husband Hussain Osman's plot to bomb London on 21 July, and had also helped him to escape first to Brighton, then to Italy, after his attempt at carnage had failed. Reports from the court testify to her copious weeping throughout the hearing, and describe her as throwing her arms in the air as the sentence was handed down.

Her lawyer, Pavlos Panayi, had pleaded mitigation during Girma's trial, claiming that "her actions were instigated by a twisted and irrational devotion to Osman, the father of her children, with whom she had had a long, troubled and volatile relationship". Her devotion must have been great indeed, because it apparently inspired her to involve her two much younger siblings in his crimes as well.

Mulu Girma, now 24, and Esayas Girma, now 22, were sentenced to 10 years each for their part in aiding the escape. Mulu's former boyfriend, Mohammed Kabashi, was sentenced to nine years, too, for his own little contributions, which included going to the flat where the faulty bombs had been made in order to destroy the evidence.

It is fairly difficult, but not impossible, to imagine that a wife might have been so completely under the psychological sway of her husband that she could have felt a misguided compulsion to keep quiet about his plans for mass murder, or to abet him in his attempts to escape justice.

But a sister-in-law? A brother-in-law? A sister-in-law's boyfriend? It is pretty clear that this family and their associates were all committed to the "cause" that Osman believed himself to be fighting, and overflowing with sympathy for the situation he found himself in after his murderous intent had been thwarted. The three siblings were the children of an Ethiopian diplomat, and the young sister had a degree in chemistry. These were not uneducated, impressionable immigrants, but young people with advantages, who chose to be involved in this most heinous crime, and did their damnedest to get away with it.

The sisters even applied for bail, Yeshi appearing at the hearing in a sequinned hijab that must have been calculated to display something about her so-called Muslim piety, and Mulu being presented by her barrister as a "model citizen" who had "sadly" missed her graduation ceremony because she had been in custody at the time. They are scary and ruthless sociopaths and they need to be punished for what they did.

Yet it is still disappointing that the judge who handed down their sentences, Paul Worsley, expressed his dissatisfaction with the "woefully inadequate" punishment he felt he had been constrained to dole out. Fifteen years in prison, or even 10 years, or nine, is not a short period by any means. Fifteen years is plenty of time for the mother of three tiny children to reflect on what she and her husband have done to their offspring, and for Girma to reflect also on what she involved the rest of her birth family in.

In the week that the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, felt inspired to "take a stand" defending liberal democracy, it might be useful to ask why judges so often feel it necessary to promulgate the idea that the justice they are charged with meting out is puny and inadequate, that long stretches in prison aren't very much of a deterrent, and that this country, with its extremely high per capita rate of imprisonment, just isn't locking enough people up, or for long enough.

It is precisely because there are so many people in prison already that foolish and fatal decisions are made about bail or early release. The last thing we need is for judges in very serious trials to start bleating plaintively about how their own punitive desires are being thwarted at every turn.

* That Davis stunt though ... I was tickled enough when that nice Michael Gove, shadow minister for children, schools and families, felt compelled to go on telly and explain that "legislation, often well intentioned" was not necessarily the best way to go about tackling the "underlying problems" associated with underage drinking. But this? Just Gordon's only hope is that in two more years, the Conservatives are going to look too progressive for office.

Whose body is it anyway?

Poor Paul Newman. At 83, he has every right to "look frail" or cancel engagements and projects because he doesn't feel up to them. He has every right also, even if he is famous, to expect the media to respect his wish to keep his medical details to himself. Instead, he is greeted daily with worldwide speculation about his health, as if his organs and their viability were public property.

Last week Fern Britton, the television presenter, was forced to issue a statement explaining that she too had no idea that her private decisions about her own bodily fitness – in her case having a gastric band fitted in order to combat her morbid obesity – ought to be subject to open scrutiny. Britton was forced to "out" herself because the News of the World decided that publishing details of her operation was in the public interest. It is pretty horrible, this emerging trend, not least because it promises to encourage the creation of a market in tip-offs about private medical information. Isn't it pretty clear that such an unscrupulous development could cause only distress and misery? What next? Paps on permanent patrol down Harley Street?

Hopes of decent social housing fly away

I'm not quibbling with the assertion that the poor housing given to the Iraqi interpreters who served the British Army in Iraq "shames Britain". But I do feel minded to point out that such housing shames Britain anyway, and that filthy hovels have been offered to hard-working families for decades. My own family, more than 35 years ago, was disgusted by the squalid accommodation offered by the local council, on a three-refusals-and-you're-off-the-list basis. And that was the norm before Thatcher, before the years of failure to invest in social housing had begun to pile up. Britain's real shame is that such places exist at all, that they have got worse, and that only this has catapulted the issue into the headlines.

* Who could feel anything but delighted at the result of Ireland's referendum on the Lisbon Treaty? Whatever anyone thinks about the idea of Europe, the "progress" of this legislation has illustrated the obfuscatory contempt for Europeans that prevails in Brussels and Strasbourg. The bureaucrats should toss a coin on the long-running farce of having two seats of government, just for a start.

A group called Proclaiming Truth in London has splashed out quite a lot of money on plastering the city's public transport with quotes from the scriptures designed to inspire curious readers to log on to its website, www. The campaign is certainly arresting, because the illustration that adorns the quotations, of a red sun blazing through stormy clouds, looks at first like a bomb explosion. Eye-catching, but unsettling.

* Sometimes I hate the internet. There I was, feeling blessed because I'd just seen a goldfinch in my garden for the first time, and foolish enough to think inner-city goldfinches were a new phenomenon. Seconds of research confirmed that goldfinches are this year the 10th most sighted garden bird in Britain, and that my failure to notice one before is a signal of my lack of observation. Now I feel deprived.