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What to do with The UnderBomber

05/25/2011 03:10 pm ET
  • William Fisher Formerly served State Department and Agency for International Development

Well, the underpants bomber has now pleaded "not guilty" to a bunch of charges stemming from his unsuccessful efforts to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas day.

The not guilty stuff is a legal formality he will use to try to negotiate some kind of plea deal. If he's not successful, he'll be tried, found guilty and, in light of the charges against him, sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Just like the 'shoe bomber' - Richard Reid.

But let me be permitted to wonder aloud whether this is our wisest course. And to ask readers to tell me what they think.

This notion isn't likely to win me any popularity contests, but there might just be a better way to for us to handle Mr. Abdulmutallab. A win-win way.

I know there are lots of folks who would just like to put Abdulmutallab away forever. Lock him up and throw away the key. Then we'd never have to think about him again. That's certainly the conventional way we handle his kinds of crimes.

But, just for a minute, let's take a step back and consider: We don't yet know much about this guy. We know he's 23 years old. And we know that, based on the sound of some of his Internet writings, he has been lonely, isolated, depressed. We know he is a deeply religious Muslim, but we don't yet know why he set out to kill us. We don't yet know what motivated him to become a jihadi.

But we probably can assume that once he gets a prison sentence that contains the words 'without possibility of parole,' he'll be an even scarier jihadi with each passing year. And attempt to turn his fellow inmates into jihadis as well.

But what would happen if we tried to give him an incentive to not be a jihadi? What if we sentenced him to, say, 20 years to life with the possibility of parole? And what if we were able to marshal the resources to really work with this guy in the slammer? Teaching him about our people, our country, our values. Could we get him to give up on jihad? Could we turn him? Could he end up like us?

Well, the prospects are probably razor-thin. The re-education of Mr. Abdulmutallab would take a considerable time. And our Bureau of Prisons would have to do a lot of outside-the-box thinking to come up with and execute a plan. But do we have a lot to lose? Wouldn't seem so.

After all, we as a people are supposed to believe in redemption, resurrection, rehabilitation. Our prison system is always saying they too believe in these values, but they do next to nothing to make them a reality. American prisons and Corrections don't belong in the same sentence.

I wouldn't even venture a guess about the odds, but there's always a chance that Mr. Abdulmutallab might just end up as a poster child for civilized behavior.

And that tantalizing possibility might just present us with a rare opportunity. Hey, you never know!

What are your thoughts, readers?

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