Sympathy for Hoda Muthana is Acceptable. Mercy without Justice is Not
The case of Hoda Muthana, the girl who left the United States to join the Islamic State (ISIS) and now wishes to return, is tragic and disturbing. Tragic insomuch as a 19-year-old threw away her life to be part of an evil cause that visited unspeakable cruelty on thousands of innocents, and disturbing insomuch as the response for the chattering class seems to be one of confusion over what ought to be done with her. Headlines like The Guardian’s fill the news, stating “Hoda Muthana ‘deeply regrets’ joining ISIS and wants to return home,” and images show a young woman and her toddler son, standing alone in a desolate refugee camp. She is a sympathetic figure, but sympathy for a repentant terrorist must never be allowed to replace justice.
Let’s first clarify the current legal question, which has muddied the situation, of whether Hoda should be allowed to return to the United States, presumably to be tried for joining a foreign terrorist organization and conspiring against her claimed country. The primary question is one of citizenship. If she was in fact a US citizen, then the 2004 Supreme Court precedent set in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld would suggest she had a claim to her Sixth Amendment day in court. But there is a major problem for Hoda; in US law the children of diplomats registered with the State Department do not receive US citizenship, even if born in the United States. Hoda’s father, Ahmed Ali Muthana, was registered as a diplomat with Yemen’s mission to the United Nations until February 1995. Hoda was born in 1994. Hoda is not a US citizen and has no claim to the rights of one.
The legal entanglement aside, I think the more pressing question is how we as a society respond to the repentant terrorist. It seems safe to say that if Hoda was currently tweeting “Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them. Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parades..go on drive by’s + spill all of their blood or rent a big truck n drive all over them. Kill them,” as she did in 2015, no one would question that she ought to be held to account. But Hoda claims that she has changed and said, “During my years in Syria I would see and experience a way of life and the terrible effects of war which changed me. Seeing bloodshed up close changed me. Motherhood changed me. Seeing friends, children, and the men I married dying changed me.” She went on to say, “I hope America doesn’t think I’m a threat to them, and I hope they can accept me”.
If, as Hoda claims, her evil deeds were done out of “ignorance,” she is now more enlightened, having learned her lesson. She is no longer a danger to society because her deviant actions were caused by a lack of knowledge that has been corrected. But this line of reasoning is to deny evil doers’ humanity by suggesting that they did not have the sense to behave as they should, much like an untrained dog who bites; it also denies the victims of the wrongs committed any hope for justice.
In his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” C.S. Lewis critically points out that if we say “crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment,” we “abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it.” Yet in so doing, we have stripped mercy of its primary responsibility—that of pardoning wrong committed. One cannot be pardoned for youth and ignorance as neither are crimes. They are physical deficiencies to be corrected by time and education. If so, then Hoda can say, “my bad, I didn’t realize,” and all is well. But if we allow ignorance to be an excuse for evil, we have killed justice because justice demands that a wrong act deserves correction on its own merits, whether the perpetrator feels remorse or not.
It is important to remember that Hoda’s act of joining as a willing and ready participant of ISIS differentiates her from other individuals who may have fallen into the hands of ISIS and conformed to survive. I am not condoning their conformity, but their cases are different and deserve a different consideration. Hoda was not a hapless victim. Seamus Hughes from Georgetown’s Program on Extremism described her as a “key node” for English-language ISIS online propaganda. She was an online recruiter for the group that had beheaded James Foley on TV, the group that had put Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh in a cage and burned him alive as part of a propaganda short film. Hoda saw these actions and still was an active agent of ISIS. Her claim to youthful ignorance is no defense. It is sad to grow up and realize you’ve become a monster. The awareness does not change the fact that you are now a monster.
There is a real victim in this case, and it is not the repentant terrorist. It is the 16-year-old Yazidi girl, and 4,800 of her sisters, who were gang-raped by ISIS fighters after watching their brothers shot. It is the Christian families who were systematically identified and killed in their homes if they could not escape in time. It should be unthinkable that we, in the nation that loves to say “never again!” would so quickly forget a genocide of whom the victims still languish in refugee camps, their homes in ruins, their communities decimated. Hoda is complicit in committing genocide against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Yet do we have such a short memory and a weak understanding of justice that we think a casual “I didn’t know better” can wipe away genocide?
One cannot help but feel we are living in a dystopia where, having exerted great effort to catch a hardened criminal and having heard him express his regret at having chosen a life of crime, the police stand around, hands in their pockets, dumbfounded as to what to do with him. When justice is supplanted by forgiveness based on a statement of remorse from a terrorist instead of being enacted based on the merits of the terrorist’s offense, we’ve only legitimized the final act of injustice by the terrorist against their victims by allowing the terrorist to get away with it.
Peter Burns is the government relations and policy director at In Defense of Christians. Burns is a Philos fellow and an alumnus of America’s Future Foundation’s Writing Fellowship. He previously worked for then-Gov. Brownback as a policy analyst.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of interview with Hoda Muthana, via ABC News.