You can’t ask me that!

Can people change?

In the final instalment of her series tackling socially unacceptable questions, Christine Manby ponders how severely we should judge people for actions committed when they were teenagers

Monday 18 March 2019 19:09 GMT

Shamima Begum was just 15 years old when she ran away from home in Bethnal Green with two school friends to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria. There she married a Dutch jihadi and threw herself into a life of religious fervour and day-to-day brutality. In February, heavily pregnant with her third child, having lost two other children in infancy, Begum gave an interview from a refugee camp, saying she’d like to come back to London. The outcry at her request was immediate and predictable and not helped by Begum’s assertion that the Manchester bombing was fair retaliation for the actions of British and US forces overseas. Sajid Javid acted swiftly to prevent Begum’s repatriation by launching the process to strip her of her British citizenship.

Listening to those who have lost loved ones in terror attacks claimed by Isis and the heartbreaking testimonies of the Yazidi people who bore the brunt of it’s cruelty, it was easy to think that Javid was right. What was the point of risking more lives to bring Begum home and attempt to deradicalise her? Begum seemed unrepentant, even as she asked for a chance to have her third child on the NHS. There was a feeling that she wouldn’t have been asking to come back at all were Isis still the winning team. She said she wasn’t “fazed” by the sight of a severed head in a bin. Indeed, it seems she thought the poor decapitated chap had it coming. By her words and by her deeds, Begum showed us who she really was. And people don’t ever change, do they?

What were you like when you were a teenager? Did you harbour any ridiculous beliefs? Have any unsuitable friends? At 16, I was a regular at the local pub, drinking alcohol underage. When the police raided said pub one Saturday night, my 30-year-old friend Richie asked me to hold something for him. He stuffed a wadded handkerchief into the breast pocket of my denim jacket. That handkerchief was wrapped around a large lump of marijuana resin. I had no idea. Expecting to be searched, Richie was happy for someone else to carry the cannabis. When he explained afterwards, I thought it was exciting. Decades later, I see exactly what a nasty move it was. The police didn’t search anybody that night but my life might have turned out very differently had they done otherwise.

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