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There's an important debate to be had after Friday's terrorist attack on London Bridge: At what point is it safe to release a prisoner convicted of terrorism back into the public? There's no chance of that debate taking place now in the final throes of a bitterly contested U.K. general election campaign. Instead there's an unseemly blame game.
A known terrorist was released from prison having served less than half his sentence, and went on a killing rampage at a conference dedicated to rehabilitating criminals. He murdered two young graduates who'd devoted their career to that cause. No wonder there's shock and anger. No wonder too that, 10 days before the national vote, neither the Conservative nor Labour parties want to accept the responsibility.
Usman Khan's rampage was a grim echo of the 2017 terrorist attacks during the last election, in which 22 people were killed at a pop concert in Manchester and eight people were later murdered in the London Bridge area. After the Manchester incident, campaigning was suspended as the nation mourned. Prime Minister Theresa May gave a dignified speech that sought to unite the country rather than pursue political advantage.
Four days later, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took the gloves off. He infuriated Conservatives by linking the attacks to "wars our government has supported or fought in other countries." And he blamed austerity for understaffed hospital emergency wards and shortages in police numbers.
Though the Tories are considered the stronger party on law and order, his criticism damaged May. She led a government that had been in power for seven years, and which had cut public funding, and as a former home secretary she'd been responsible for security. By the time the 2017 London Bridge attack happened, less than a week before that year's vote, May's "strong and stable" image was in tatters.
This time there was no dignified pause. After Friday's attack, May's successor Boris Johnson immediately called for tougher sentencing and pinned Khan's release from prison on a Labour-era policy, even as the family of one of Friday's victims, Jack Merritt, lambasted the prime minister for exploiting the 25-year-old's death for political gain.
Corbyn largely reprised his 2017 line. In a defence policy speech ahead of this week's NATO summit, he noted that "Britain's repeated military interventions in North Africa and the wider Middle East, including Afghanistan, have exacerbated rather than resolved the problems." Mindful of the U.S. president's visit to the U.K. this week, Corbyn threw in a warning that Britain risks being "tied to Donald Trump's coat-tails" under Johnson.
The Labour leader was careful to note that "the blame lies with the terrorists, their funders and recruiters"; but he surely hoped that he'd grab the attention of voters by reminding them of Britain's foreign policies under previous governments - policies he'd opposed. The problem for Corbyn is that his responses to terrorism often make voters, and Britain's allies, nervous about his commitment to security.
The truth about Khan is more complicated than either Johnson or Corbyn want to acknowledge. At 19, he was part of a militant Salafi jihadi organization in blue-collar Stoke-on-Trent. He linked up with other jihadi groups and caught the attention of the security services. He was jailed in 2012 for planning acts of terrorism against the London Stock Exchange and other British locations, and for planning a training camp in Kashmir.
Related: Terror returns to London Bridge
His original sentence under the U.K.'s controversial "Imprisonment for Public Protection" guidelines would have kept him incarcerated until a Parole Board was satisfied he posed no threat. Thousands of low-level criminals were held under the same rules with little chance of release or rehabilitation. The sentencing policy was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012 and changed by the Conservative government.
In 2013, an appeal court converted Khan's sentence to a 16-year "extended sentence." But under a 2008 Labour government policy meant to reduce prison overpopulation, offenders under extended jail terms were released automatically halfway through their sentences. While that law was changed by the Tories in 2012 to require inmates to serve two-thirds of the sentence and to win Parole Board approval for release, Khan's sentencing fell under the previous policy.
There are surely lessons here. Khan's original arrest and conviction shows the importance of well-funded intelligence and police work; his subsequent attack shows that proper parole reviews are vital - although, as the appeal decision demonstrated, they can never be fail-safe. Johnson is right to order a review of others with similar convictions who've been released without Parole Board approval. And yet the idea that tougher sentencing and more policing is all that's needed is dangerously simplistic.
© Metropolitan Police/PAJack Merritt and Saskia Jones.
It's a cruel irony that Khan's rampage took place at a conference organized by a Cambridge University program for prison-based education. Such programs can help redress the widespread problem of re-offending. Indeed, two of those who risked their lives to tackle Khan were convicted offenders, one of whom who now works for prison reform. And yet, as Jack Merritt's father fears, Johnson's response is likely to cool support for such programs.
The narrow argument around sentencing guidelines also misses the bigger picture of a criminal justice system that has suffered from resource shortfalls and policy failures. And it avoids the thornier subject of how best to counter radicalization and extremism, both in prisons and in society. That requires a broader suite of policies - from community-based prevention programs, to intelligence gathering to better policing - than Johnson's framing of the problem acknowledges and far better government leadership.
The reaction to Friday's attack captured the dilemma facing many voters about the two party leaders. If the risk with Johnson is that he'll say anything to get elected, the worry about Corbyn is that he means exactly what he says. One has done nothing to earn voters' trust; the other nothing to win their confidence.
These are some of the thorniest security issues facing any British government. At the business end of an election campaign, don't expect a real discussion of any of it.