THERE can be few sights more unedifying than watching the politicisation of murder.

In the wake of the London Bridge terror attack in which two young people were killed by Islamist extremist Usman Khan, the Conservative and Labour Party began trading blows over who was to blame for the murderer’s early release from prison.

Khan was convicted in 2012 of an extensive plot which included plans to attack the London Stock Exchange. He left Belmarsh Prison on early release in December 2018.

After the murders, Boris Johnson blamed the previous Labour administration for the early release programme. The audacity was staggering. The Conservatives have been in power since 2010 – they’ve had almost a decade to fix any security problems created by Labour. Johnson was foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018 and should have spotted any deficiencies himself.

Labour in turn has blamed the Tories for austerity cuts which have damaged the prison and probation service and created a security risk. Jeremy Corbyn said “you can’t keep people safe on the cheap”. Ian Acheson, a former prison governor who led a government review into Islamist terrorism in the prison and probation service, said: “At the heart of this is the destruction of the prison and probation service through crazy, failed, ideological austerity cuts.”

Acheson, who describes himself as a Conservative, added: “We went far too far, far too fast – we are now reaping what we sowed.”

Whilst it’s grotesque to watch politicians try to make capital out of death, the technical debate over early release and cuts to the justice system must be had. We need to have the right framework and laws in place to keep us all safe.

However, such technical debates about the mechanics of prison and probation become a substitute for a much more important debate that we need to have: what do we do with terrorists? Can terrorists be rehabilitated? Should terrorists ever be released from prison?

This is a discussion this country has been reluctant to engage in, as it’s a troubling one. It’s much easier in the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity to debate the issues that each particular crime raises – were the intelligence services vigilant enough? why was he released from prison early? did no-one see this coming? – rather than have a national conversation which tries to explore the big questions when it comes to tackling and preventing terror.

I’ve written about terrorism for nearly 30 years, and I can assure you that terrorists do not simply wake up one morning and decide they hate a particular group of people so much that they are going to go out and kill them.

Terrorism is driven by weakness, a sense of powerlessness, exclusion, rejection. People who feel happy and confident, who believe they will flourish in society, do not become political killers. Nascent terrorists also believe, either rightly or wrongly, that they are in some way under attack from a more powerful group. They’re fearful.

If you speak to former terrorists from Ireland, most will tell you that they picked up a gun because they believed their community was under attack from either Protestants or Catholics. When it comes to Islamism, those who turn to violence seem primarily motivated by the idea that the west is assaulting the wider Muslim world – ‘their community’. If you have a sense of belonging, you do not turn on the society in which you live.

The same goes for far-right terrorists. The many neo-nazis I have met over the years all believed they were marginalised, that they were under attack, that the white race was ‘threatened’. They all hated the society they lived within and they all felt under threat, even in danger, from those they deemed the ‘other’, in their minds immigrants.

However, what marks terrorists out from other criminals is ideology. No-one becomes a bank robber or drug dealer because they believe in the tenets of robbery or drug dealing. Belief, ideology, is what makes the idea of rehabilitation so difficult. Terrorists believe they are in the right. No terrorist believes they’re doing something wrong – no matter how appalling.

So if a person kills in the belief that they’re acting justly, how can the process of imprisonment ever reform and rehabilitate them? Are terrorists not in effect inhabiting the mindset of the prisoner of war? They see themselves at war with the society they find themselves in, they attack that society in an act of war – in their minds – then they are caught and jailed. Psychologically, jail for them is not a place of punishment and rehabilitation, imprisonment is just part of the price of being at war.

Of course, we can talk of rehabilitation programmes. But the London Bridge attacker seems to have faked his way through a rehabilitation programme. Nor can we force prisoners to undergo such therapies. We’re a democracy – we don’t run re-education camps like China or force ideas on people against their will.

Are our prisons fit for purpose, therefore, when it comes to dealing with this type of offender? We know there is a risk of radicalisation spreading in prison so should terrorist prisoners be held in special segregated jails just for them? Wouldn’t that in itself, though, create an effective prisoner of war camp. Would we find ourselves on a slippery slope to a British Guantanamo Bay?

There is only so much liberty we can trade for security before the roots of democracy wither and die. The answer is to get to the causes of the growth of terrorism. British imperial adventures in Iraq were self-evidently the catalyst for home-grown Islamist terrorism. How do we address that anger?

How do we make the marginalised and the alienated – regardless of skin colour – feel a part of this society? Is the education system equipped to deal with radicalisation? Are our housing estates too segregated by colour? Is poverty or hopelessness driving people into the arms of radicals?

Terror is now commonplace. We cannot continue asking timid questions or retreating into technocratic, legislative debate in the wake of each new offence. We have to ask the big, disturbing questions as a society about terrorism if we are to have any hope of being safe and remaining free.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year