Members of the media await the sentencing of El Shafee Elsheikh outside the Albert V. Bryan Federal Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia on August 19, 2022 Image Credit: AFP

On the morning of Friday last week, I sat in the gallery of a court of law and saw for myself how, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, even a banal man is capable of enacting evil — in this case, evil beyond all rational understanding, evil from which we are forced to turn in nauseated disbelief.

That court of law was the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, located in the heart of Old Town, just minutes from Washington by subway. Upon entering the courthouse building — named after Albert V. Bryan, a renowned judge who had served, with others, to implement the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 — you are required to show ID, have your bags screened by an X-ray machine. Meanwhile, you let your press card hang ostentatiously out of your breast pocket because you want to advertise the purpose of your visit.

The defendant in this case, who had already been convicted of first degree murder in a four-week trial in April, was there to be sentenced for his crime, one that, even measured by the blood-soaked and ideologically intoxicated excesses of the group he had been an active, ardent member of, was heinous indeed.

Throughout the hearing, the victims’ relatives, along with their friends, had sat in the front row of the courtroom looking visibly shaken, before giving their victim impact statements — part of the judicial process where crime victims or their relatives are allowed to address the court about how the crime in question had adversely affected their lives.

Finally, the judge, T.S. Ellis, 83, looks down sternly at the defendant and, after calling the crime he had earlier been convicted of committing “horrific, brutal, barbaric and of course criminal”, sentences him to life behind bars without the possibility of parole, which effectively means that the only time this man can leave the slammer will be when he’s carried out in a pine box.

We’re talking here about El Shafee Elsheikh, 34, who was born in Sudan but raised in London, where as a youngster he became a fan of Queen’s Park Rangers, a local football team he reportedly had dreamed of one day joining. Instead, he Joined Daesh, also known as ISIS, the notorious terrorist group, where he went on to play a central role in a terrorist cell dubbed the “Beatles” — after the British band — a nickname that belied the group’s unspeakable depravity.

In October 2020, Elsheikh was flown from Syria — where he had been captured after Daesh’s last stand and ignominious defeat at the Battle of Baghouz a year earlier, which put its caliphniks on the run — to the US to face charges for the abduction, torture and execution of four Americans — journalists: James Foley and Steven Soltoff, aid worker Peter Kassig and human rights activist Kayla Mueller — all, except for Mueller, who was killed under uncertain circumstances, were shown in gruesome videos getting beheaded, videos gleefully posted online by the cell. (Equally gruesome acts, also shown in videos, released in 2015, depicted the decapitated body of Japanese citizen Hamura Yukawa and the beheading of Kenji Gito, also a Japanese citizen.)

Perversion of the human spirit

We lack the vocabulary to describe such iniquity, such perversion of the human spirit. And we lack the means, in this case, to let the punishment fit the crime.

Elsheikh will spend the rest of his life in prison, sure, argue some commentators, but still the man has gotten off easy, for he will spend that life having ready access to television, three meals a day, health and dental care, visitation rights — even, where applicable, conjugal ones — and to the prison library, commissary and gym. In short, the punishment he had inflicted on his victims, not to mention the one, in the form of sustained grief, he inflicted on the victims’ families, was more severe than the one he had received.

In other words, these folks — call them retributionists, if you wish — appear to believe that the deserved punishment here should be determined by invoking what is known as lex talionis, or “the law of retaliation”, where we impose harm on a criminal identical to the one he or she had imposed on their victim — that is, as the adage has it, “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth”. (It becomes darn problematic when we here have to punish, say, hijackers, bank robbers, child molesters, counterfeiters and the like, wouldn’t you say?)

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The fact of the matter is, as French philosopher Michel Foucault posited in his iconic and wildly popular work, Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison (Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison, 1975), we have, well, come a long way, baby. Penology in Western culture has adopted a gentler, more benign way of disciplining and punishing criminals, where you punish less, yes, but you punish better, certainly less and better than earlier times when convicts were tortured or burned at the stake.

Last Friday, in court, Shirley Foley, mother of slain journalist James Foley, looked at El Shafee Elsheikh as she read her victim impact statement and told him, straight to his face: “Hatred truly overwhelmed your humanity”. The man just sat there and looked down the bridge of his nose, evincing no emotion whatsoever.

And I hazard the guess that he evinced no emotion because such is the banality of evil that evil doers consider neither themselves nor their deeds evil, and because, in their hearts, they assume that they can partake in the exercise of evil without bearing the real cost.

One day, the Arab World will also compose its own victim impact statement, one that will speak of how, in its reign of terror, relatively short though it may have been, Daesh killed thousands, displaced millions, decapitated suspected recalcitrants, held sex slaves, buried uncounted men, women and children in mass graves, razed to rubble priceless heritage sites and turned cities under their control into domains of terror where there was darkness at noon.

What punishment do we mete out to those who had committed such horrific crimes, to those who made us lose so much? I say we do not punish, we move on, and we do not lose, we learn.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.