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We owe the relatives of murder victims our compassion but not our belief

Saturday’s Daily Mail carries this headline: ‘He’s a fraud’: Father of London Bridge terror victim Jack Merritt blasts Boris Johnson for making ‘political capital’ out of son’s death – and backs Jeremy Corbyn after TV debate

The article continues,

The father of a man killed in the London Bridge terror has slammed Boris Johnson for trying to ‘make political capital’ over his death.

David Merritt said the Prime Minister was a ‘fraud’ for using the attack as justification for a series of tougher criminal policies in a post on social media.

His son Jack Merritt, 25, was one of two people killed by convicted terrorist Usman Khan at a prisoner reform meeting in Fishmongers’ Hall last Friday.

What bitter irony that the two young people Usman Khan murdered believed strongly that criminals like him could change for the better. Because Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were attending a conference on rehabilitation of offenders alongside Khan they were the nearest available targets for his knives. No doubt Khan planned it that way. One of the consistent aims of Islamists is to sow distrust for Muslims among non-Muslims.

David Merritt has suffered the cruellest blow imaginable. Nothing is more natural than that he should strive to counter the narrative that the ideals for which his son strove are disproved by the manner of his murder.

It is, of course, right to say that the ideal of rehabilitation is not disproved by one failure. No policy is proved or disproved by individual cases. Let us not forget that James Ford, one of the men who bravely fought to subdue Khan, was a convicted murderer on day-release.

However while Khan’s example of terrorist rehabilitation gone wrong does not prove that it can never go right, it is a data point. Thankfully we do not have many data points for the graph of jihadists playing a long game. But that means the ones we do have weigh comparatively heavily. What Khan did others can copy. The prime minister and those who make policy on parole and rehabilitation of prisoners must assess that possibility. They cannot allow what Jack Merritt would have wanted or what would ease David Merritt’s pain to factor in their decision.

In 2001 I wrote a pamphlet for the Libertarian Alliance called Rachel weeping for her children: understanding the reaction to the massacre at Dunblane (PDF, text). When discussing massacres carried out by Muslims with a Libertarian audience it is worth bringing up the subject of massacres carried out by gun owners, because our prejudices are likely to run in a different direction. We are better protected from the temptation to make group judgements. There are other common factors in how we should strive to think rationally about these two sorts of mass killing as well. In 2001 I wrote how the agony of the bereaved parents of those children preyed on my mind. I would have done anything to comfort them – except believe what I knew to be untrue.

When the parents of the Dunblane children spoke there was every reason for the world to hear about their terrible experience. There was never any particular reason to suppose that their opinions were right. In fact their opinions should carry less weight than almost anyone else’s should. This point is well understood when it comes to juries. It goes without saying, or, at least, it once did, that guilt or innocence must be decided by impartial people. Decisions of policy require the same cast of mind as decisions of guilt and innocence. The relatives of murder victims cannot be impartial. In a murder trial it is no use saying that it is as important to the family of the victim as to the judge that no innocent person be punished. In pure logic it ought to be, but in fact it almost never is. The bereaved want to believe that the evildoer has been punished. If the real evildoer has escaped (either escaped in the literal meaning of the word or escaped by suicide, as Hamilton did) someone must be found to suffer. Even in cases of pure accident we don’t have Acts of God any more: always some arm of government or business is pursued and sued so that the weight of blame may fall on somebody.

18 comments to We owe the relatives of murder victims our compassion but not our belief

  • Julie near Chicago


    First, let me say that your essay for the old L.A. is excellent. Sensible, and absorbing. Thank you.

    And it’s very nice to know that you fiddle with firearms. I hope you continue to enjoy the hobby.

    I do want to point out that it’s not entirely true that

    In a murder trial it is no use saying that it is as important to the family of the victim as to the judge that no innocent person be punished.

    Although, happily, you avoid attributing this reaction to all members of all such bereaved families:

    “…in fact it almost never is.”

    The sad truth is that I’ve been wasting a lot of time lately that could better be used for something useful, such as napping; namely, I’ve been bingeing on thrillers. I don’t choose them according to the apparent politics of the writer, but rather by whether they hold my interest and don’t make me lose my lunch. However, in perhaps two or three out of five of these, the precise argument has been made to the fictional families or their sympathizers that to convict the wrong person is, first, to deny actual justice to the victim, and second, to leave the real perp free to do it again.

    I don’t by a long shot argue that many or even most people would not react as you say, especially as their initial reaction; but there are those who understand why that reaction ought to be corrected.

    As minor evidence: In many books, the bereft person who hollered loudest that the initial suspect dunit and must be hung from the nearest lamppost, ends up thanking the P.I., the cops, or the benighted amateur for sticking to his or their guns and continuing the search for the real bad guy. What the person wanted, after all, was revenge on or just punishment to the person actually guilty — not the nearest somewhat plausible candidate.

    Which means that at least some thriller-writers are aware of this issue.

    All that aside, thanks for your posting and your longer essay. Food for thought, and definitely well done.


    P.S. I have to laugh. Years (20 or 30 of ’em) ago I read a thriller, not a Great Book but good light reading by a pretty good writer, who of course fixed everybody’s attention on Mr. X as the doer. In the last chapter or four the hero decided that actually Mr. Y dunit, and of course he (the writer) would know.

    But I always thought he got it wrong. His reasoning just wouldn’t wash. Obviously Mr. X was the real perp.

    Amazing how wrong some writers can be! :>))!!

    . . .

    I should have said in so many words: Your title is 100% correct, and we should all take note. Point well made.

    . . ..

    Also: Re my first comment, actually I was reading something into your statement that you didn’t say.

    So: It’s perfectly sensible that at trial, the defense attorney as well as the judge s/make this point, even if it goes over all the combined heads.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The vehemence of the denunciation of Boris Johnson by this person struck me as a bit odd, to be honest. If a politician cannot make a political comment about the policy implications of a brutal event, when can he or she do so? Is there meant to be some sort of code that says they cannot speak or write for a day, week or month about X or Y?

    There’s actually a very different response: Boris Johnson or indeed anyone else would be neglecting their role if they did not use such terrible events as teachable moments about issues such as penal policy and the treatment of such killers. In our 24/7 news-cycle it is necessary to do so.

    The father of the murdered man wants to vote for Mr Corbyn, a man who has consorted with terrorists and anti-semites for much of his miserable adult life. Maybe he likes how Corbyn is “authentic” in his support for the overthrow of the West and its values.

    We live in the Crazy Years.

  • Mr Ecks

    I don’t care about the losses of a man who uses his own son’s murder to shill for Marxist evil. The Jo Cox caper all over again.

    The son was a naive leftist to be as kind as possible. And no greater proof could be given as to the absolute falsehood of his views about violent scum.

  • Ed Turnbull

    Here’s a question: did David Merritt condemn Corbyn and his merry band for making political capital out of the Grenfell fire? No? Colour me shocked… 😉

    In fact I’d suggest it’s Mr Merritt who’s making political capital here by using his public profile (a consequence of his son’s death) to endorse Corbyn.

  • Mr Ed

    ‘Criminology’ is not in any sense a discipline worthy of the name, it is just a branch of sociology, which is itself not a discipline so much as a collection of observations, not even Rutherford’s ‘stamp collecting’. Nonetheless, some criminologists decided to do what turned out to be an ‘experiment’ by inviting criminals along to a meeting, some behaved honourably, one did not. It turned out that they had brought a ‘negative control’, which behaved exactly as a negative control should when subjected to rehabilitation. Sadly, two people died and some were injured. Is this not a situation where the risk of harm was reasonably foreseeable? Are the organisers potentially liable in law? Oddly enough, the Conservatives have suggested that owners of venues for public events should be required to plan to be attacked by terrorists, not only if they invite terrorists, but simply because they are a target.

    As to the perp, Dr David Wood takes his rehabilitation to ‘tusk’ here.

  • bobby b

    Ever read Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle?

    Anything and everything for the Cause, including your own dead son if there’s value in his death.

  • Rudolph Hucker


    Even in cases of pure accident we don’t have Acts of God any more

    In these enlightened (sic) times, would I be correct in thinking they are now all Acts of Negligence that someone (or some organisation) can be sued for?

    The question of whether God was previously negligent would (as Father Ted might say) be an ecumenical matter. Strangely, God is rearely viewed as a Libertarian who lets her children learn from their own mistakes.

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    Jack Merritt’s death was a tragedy for his family and most of us can only imagine his family’s grief. Like all grief, it’s an intensely personal matter.

    But his killing is a different matter. That was the result of terrorism; like all terrorism it was a political act. That makes it fit and proper for politicians to discuss.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I’d like to add to the discussion another example of the bereaved turning their anger onto the wrong target because of the death or escape of the actual culprit or culprits. It will just be from memory because I can’t face looking it up. After the Beslan school siege carried out by Islamist terrorists ended in the deaths of hundreds of children, I read that the unfortunate headmistress of the school had to go into hiding for fear of the fury of the bereaved parents.

  • Sam Duncan

    “When the parents of the Dunblane children spoke there was every reason for the world to hear about their terrible experience. There was never any particular reason to suppose that their opinions were right.”

    One of the Dunblane parents is on the front page of today’s Glasgow Herald, saying that Boris is “unfit” to be PM because of his alleged Wrongthink about guns. His opinion is to be expected, but front page news over twenty years after the event? That sounds an awful lot like “politicization” to me. I wonder what David Merritt thinks of it.

  • Strangely, God is rarely viewed as a Libertarian who lets her children learn from their own mistakes. (Rudolph Hucker, December 9, 2019 at 11:59 am)

    Actually, that is very much the orthodox view. I recall a C.S.Lewis essay about a mother who tells her children that now they are older they must tidy their own rooms, she will no longer do it for them. Then she looks in a week later and finds the rooms in chaos but does not tidy them. The point of the essay is to discuss the sense in which she does not want the rooms to be untidy but in another sense does want that – she wants her children to grow even more than she wants their rooms to be immediately tidy.

  • My own attitude has always been: if you care, you think. If you don’t care enough to think then you don’t care that much. I not only get Julie near Chicago’s point (December 9, 2019 at 4:04 am), I would want good grounds to think a condemned man was the guilty party – not just kill some opportune person so I can think “Good, that’s over, now I have closure”, a fundamentally selfish desire. It’s the same as wanting to feed the hungry, but not wanting it enough to think hard about whether socialism will or not.

    There will be times this cannot be expected from the immediately bereaved and distraught – at least, not by me, who should care enough to think, “Would I be calmer at such a moment?” But over time it can and should be.

    In this particular case, I do see content in the comments of Johnathan Pearce (December 9, 2019 at 8:33 am), Natalie Solent (Essex) (December 9, 2019 at 2:09 pm), bobby b (December 9, 2019 at 9:51 am), Sam Duncan (December 9, 2019 at 5:08 pm) and even – though I’d use calmer words of a father who recently lost a son – Mr Ecks (December 9, 2019 at 9:25 am). Some people display their own self-absorption and bigotry in the very act of loud public interested grieving. If you care, you care less about getting some political effect (I take it we can trust the Daily Mail to have included any qualifications of his criticism of Boris if he had made any).

    On the other side of that argument, Natalie is right that it is natural the father does not want his son’s death to tell against the cause his son chose to pursue in life, despite the event very much being a data point that does, and perhaps qualified speech is something we should excuse the lack of (so soon after the death) in him, even if its exploitation by others deserves no such excuse.

  • Paul Marks

    At the risk of repeating the July 2016 “thought crime” that got me removed from the Conservative Party some days ago (after 40 years of unpaid service), what matters is the BELIEFS of the person with the knife, or car, or truck, or whatever.

    The man who killed the two people on London Bridge was not some savage animal (whatever the press may say) – he was a human being who had certain beliefs – beliefs that led him to do what he did. His beliefs were not seriously challenged by the well meaning people who he killed, or by anyone else in authority. On the contrary, every person in authority that he met AGREED with him that Muhammed was a fine man and what he taught is excellent – they simply tried to convince him that his interpretation of the life (deeds – example) of Muhammed and the teachings of this person was mistaken.

    I never met the London Bridge killer – but it is not hard to put myself in his shoes. People who know vastly less about your religion than you do are trying to convince you that your interpretation of it is mistaken. If you agree with them then you get to leave to prison – and the founder of your faith taught that saying things that are not strictly accurate to people who do not share your religion is justified IF you are doing so for the benefit of the religion (NOT just for your own benefit).

    “Well I can do far more for the faith outside of prison” the man will have thought to himself “so I will pretend to agree with what these people are saying – I will tell them that I now see that my faith is about PEACE, not submission, and they will believe what I say to them because I am saying what they want to hear”.

    The tragedy is that if one said anything like this to Mr Merritt, which I would NOT because the man is still grieving for his murdered son, he would be outraged – “Islamophobe” or “racist” he would say, even though I do NOT despise Islam (far from it – see below) and Islam is a religion NOT a “race”. No evidence or argument would have any effect on him (none) – someone at CCO may (or may not) privately agree with what the evidence and logical reasoning show (even whilst thinking that only a fool would be stupid enough to write this on Facebook – as I sort-of did in July 2016), but the sort of person who would back Jeremy Corbyn is not interested in evidence or rational argument – the modern “liberal” mind (which dominates the universities) is utterly opposed to evidence and logical reasoning – at least in political matters.

    I have no hesitation in saying that a follower of Muhammed is far less difficult for me to understand than a modern Mr Corbyn supporting “liberal” is. A follower of Muhammed believes certain things on the evidence of the Islamic scriptures (the Koran, the Hadiths, the life of Muhammed) and a tradition that goes back some 14 centuries, a tradition that includes some men of the highest intellectual abilities – legal thinkers, philosophers, great military and political tacticians. Muhammed himself was a man (and I mean this) of GENIUS – a political and military leader of GENIUS. He came from nothing (nothing) conquered all of Arabia, and created one of the great powers, Islam, of world history for the last 14 centuries.

    But the modern “liberal” (not really liberal at all) – who backs the absurd subMarxist delusions of Comrade Jeremy and co – no I do not understand them at all. I respect Islam – but my view of Corbyn worship is very different. Someone who reads the Labour Party manifesto (do people still read manifestos?) or watched a television interview with Shadow Chancellor Mr John McDonnell and says to themselves “yes more state ownership and lots more regulations and government spending – that is what we should be doing!” – such people are so alien (so totally alien) to me, that I do not understand them.

    By the way – to those who say “it is not just beliefs – someone also has to have the sort of personality that is willing to kill, and to die, for their beliefs”, yes I think that is so. A person being willing to die and to kill for their beliefs – yes I think I have a fairly good understanding of that sort of personality.

  • Paul Marks

    “One of the consistent aims of Islamists is to sue distrust for Muslims among nonMuslims”.

    What is the evidence for that statement? And what is an “Islamist”?

    If the word “Muslim” does not mean someone who follows, or at least tries to follow, the teachings and life example of Muhammed (however one wishes to spell the name of the 7th century religious, political and military leader) what does the word “Muslim” mean?

    I think it is fair to say that the majority of people born into any major religion do not think deeply about it – they are “nominal” Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, whatever.

    But there are always going to be people who, at some point in their lives (perhaps out of self disgust with their own decedent or shallow life) look deeply at the founder of their religion and try and live by their teachings and personal example – especially if no one in the wider society is allowed to argue AGAINST the founder of their religion.

    If a person is “off limits” – if their teachings and personal example can never be condemned, then liberty is smashed. And without any need for bombs, bullets, knives, cars, trucks – whatever.

    When Augustine of Hippo wrote it was legitimate to use physical force against people with whom one disagreed theologically, he may not have intended to light the fires of so many centuries of religious persecution – but that is what he did, and his teaching deserves to be CONDEMNED both for its consequences and because what he wrote was just WRONG.

    What is true of Augustine the Christian is true of the religious (or other) teachers of any belief system (religious or non religious) – including the FOUNDERS of religions. When they did morally bad things in their lives they should be peacefully condemned for what they did, and when they the taught morally bad things they should be peacefully condemned for what they taught.

    I repeat, if we have the reached the point where the founder of a major religion (any major religion – or non religious world view) may not be peacefully condemned for certain morally bad things they did in their lives, and for certain morally bad things that they taught, then liberty is smashed.

  • Paul I am very sorry to hear that you have been removed from the Tory party (Paul Marks, December 9, 2019 at 11:15 pm). I sympathise with you, but because your comment was well-written and well-reasoned, I am also very sorry if the Tory party, or some part of it, remains a place where such remarks get victimised instead of heard with respect. I could make a wild guess at some spin-doctor’s panicky thought “mustn’t have the ‘wrong’ quote going all round Britain the day before the election” to imagine a context for this (not, of course expecting you to confirm or qualify – I can see you will likely not wish to discuss details in a public blog) but it shows how far the rot goes in our political culture.

    You are right that taqqiya provides a muslim inmate with all the religious sanction he needs to fool the only-too-willing prison ‘reformers’, but it is worth mentioning that a muslim-background prisoner who lost his faith and integrated thoroughly into modern UK criminal culture would be taught by his new fellows how to tell the reformers what they wanted and so get out after a third of the sentence. It is only the Farmer Martins who are too honest to do that whom the ‘reformers’ eagerly keep confined for the hate-speech crime of not echoing their PC line.

    if we have the reached the point where the founder of a major religion (any major religion – or non religious world view) may not be peacefully condemned

    I feel sure Christ can be crucified in speech in the UK without actual danger (legal or terroristic) to the speaker.

  • Paul Marks

    Niall – my Facebook POST of July 2016 was (I think) correct. But I also wrote a private comment on the post of someone else (on a post in a private group the “Conservative Friends of Northern Ireland”) or a different subject in January 2018, the subject of the post being the Mayor of London, and my comment was flippant and wrong – I suspect it was really my comment of January 2018 that really offended people (and I would agree that I should not have written in it – both because of its flippant Noel Coward “vile creature” tone, and its lack of accuracy about London – a city can not have political opinions pro or anti Britain), but people have to pretend that it was my own post of July 2016 that offends them – as one can not really be punished (even in the the U.K.) for a private comment on the post of someone else (a post not written by me – some of the post by a Mr “William Patton”, who I do not know, was correct and some of it was quite wrong) on a private group.

    Both the Guardian newspaper and Conservative Central Office conflated my comment and my post as if they were the same thing – even though they were on different subjects, written in different places, and actually written in different years (2016 post, 2018 comment).

    I think they had to do that – or attacking me would have been more difficult.

    Lesson to learn – never write a flippant and inaccurate (wrong) comment, because it will be used to discredit your posts, and discredit you as a person. And, of course, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PRIVATE – not anymore.

  • bobby b

    Paul, last year I got myself in between two large cows and suffered some broken ribs. I’m not sure they even knew I was there.

    I read the Guardian’s article about your suspension last month and it reminded me of that day. The Tories were being knocked about by the PC, and you ended up in between them.

    Never stand in between the large cows.

    (I also thought to myself as I read the article “they suspended him for THAT?!”)

  • Paul Marks

    bobby b

    “Standing between large cows” has been the story of my life.

    But it is O.K. – I am an acceptable casualty of the conflict (when I signed on, 40 years ago, I knew I could be sacrificed at any time), what matters is that the Guardian types are now weeping tears of grief and rage.

    And I hope your ribs (and general health) are fine now.