James Belchamber

Death is now the ultimate punishment, and your children are now fair game

Once again the Shamima Begum case is doing the rounds, with people pontificating on whether or not she is - in turn - deserving of citizenship, repatriation, or sympathy. Most people can't muster the game face to pretend the woman - now largely waiting out her fate in a Syrian refugee camp - would be a serious threat to the British people if she were repatriated and arrested (although that doesn't seem to have stopped the Supreme Court from being swayed by the fantasy). Instead, the conversation has focused on moral hazard - "If we repatriated her, what's the punishment for her crimes?" (judge, jury and prison), "If she's allowed to keep her citizenship then what's the threat to others tempted to follow in her footsteps?" (..judge, jury and prison).

And, of course, the conveniently glossed over: "What if we DIDN'T leave a child to die for the sins of their parents? How would they learn?"

For while adults play deadly games of brinkmanship over how many rights we can strip in the name of security - fair trial, duty of care, the right to a nationality - the death toll can be counted on little tiny toes, of little tiny feet.

Let's get something out of the way - Shamima Begum was a British citizen, by birth. This is not a political statement, but a statement of fact - as much as conservatives want facts to become equal to opinions, the reality of the situation is that Shamima Begum was born in the UK and held British citizenship. This citizenship was stripped, without fair hearing, at the whim of the Home Secretary - a power now affirmed by the highest court in the land:

Thirdly, the Court of Appeal mistakenly believed that, when an individual’s right to have a fair hearing of an appeal came into conflict with the requirements of national security, her right to a fair hearing must prevail

To clarify, that's a right we've all lost - if the government of the day decide that you are a threat, they can literally un-person you as a British citizen. This should send a shiver down the spines of everyone - of course, it disproportionately affects those who the public are more comfortable classing as "not really British".

(The idea that we could not adequately contain Begum is laughable, of course - in a prison system that successfully held the Yorkshire Ripper until his death last year, and currently holds Julian Assange despite his term being completed.)

Whether or not a government should have this power should not be the subject of debate: it's not up for debate, except in this bizarro, conservative hellscape where we've come to question even the validity of human rights. We only get to do this because a majority of the British public think that their rights are safe, and in reality the only people who would lose their rights are "others" - as if the famous poem says "after they come for everyone else, they will not come for you".

But it doesn't matter - not compared to what we've already done, and continue to do, in pursuit of a little more security. The government is now making the argument - and has been for some time - that your children should suffer for your actions, even where the state has clear precedent for intervening. We've seen this in their approach to welfare, but nothing is more stark than when they abandoned a British child - live, well-reported, and in plain sight.

The night I learned Shamima Begum's child died, I turned off the monitor and went and sat next to my son's crib. I remember feeling a deep, crushing empathy with the family of that child. I felt some comfort that, being clearly "White British", he wouldn't be so easily stripped of his citizenship - and then an immediate and overwhelming guilt that this comfort came at the expense of so much suffering.

The last time I remember feeling this way was the death of Alan Kurdi, a toddler, fleeing war and persecution in Syria - something we seem to have moved on from so quickly. I'm sure, however, that any parent will have that image seared into their mind's eye. It's hard to escape the innate knowledge that these were children just like our own; just as innocent, and just as vulnerable. We can tell ourselves tales about how "our child is different" or "their parents deserved it" - but I see my son in that infamous picture, every time it comes up.

No child could do anything to deserve this.

To Jarrah, the son of Shamima Begum, I am sorry. On behalf of the British state, and on behalf of the British people that are complicit in it. You did not deserve to die, regardless of what your parents did. The British state (perfectly able to make the journey Anthony Loyd made to interview your mother) should have brought you into its care. Your formative years should have been in the custody of your family; you should have learned of the things your biological parents did, and what justice they faced.

Instead you are dead - left to die by Sajid Javid and supported in lock-step by this conservative government, seeking to score points by ensuring a world watch you die for your mother's (untried) crimes. Matrilineal, capital punishment.

I wonder, were I a part of your family, if I could return to my life - forever in the knowledge that the British state "protects" the British people through expeditionary wars, then washes their hands of all consequences; forever in the knowledge that my kin is dead through a decision that values his tiny, British hands less than a White British majority – stoked by fear into accepting (demanding!) barbarism in the name of security. No longer in doubt that, even generations in, I am only equal in shades.

I wonder how that realisation would affect what I dedicate my life to.


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