On Mercy

Yesterday a man who attacked someone who had burgled his house and terrorised his family had his sentence cut and suspended (having had his conviction overturned) and released. Also yesterday, a woman who had killed her brain-damaged son by giving him an overdose of heroin was jailed for life, with an unusually low tariff (or minimum time to be served) of nine years. The release of the first man, and the crime of the second, are both being linked to mercy.

The case of Munir Hussain taps into the general feeling that home-owners aren’t well-enough protected from burglars, and the sentiment that someone who breaks into someone else’s house shouldn’t be protected from the law and deserve everything they get has been widely expressed. The problem is that this guy didn’t just fight back while the attacker was there; after escaping, he called his brother and gave the guy a bashing with a cricket bat that resulted in brain damage. The brother had his own sentence reduced and is back in jail; he was not there when the house was burgled.

The man they attacked (two others apparently got away) was Walid Salem, who had 50 previous convictions. Still, the attack was sustained and took place after the burglary was over and the danger had passed. They did not just give him a kicking and leave him with a few bruises; if they had, they would have got a vastly lesser sentence, if any. Since Munir Hussain and the burglar are both Muslims, a quotation from the Reliance of the Traveller would do here:

o7.2: If an aggressor is trying to take one’s money or property, it is permissible to defend it but not obligatory. If the aggressor intends one’s womenfolk (O: such as one’s wife or son’s wife), it is obligatory to defend them.

o7.3: To defend means to use the minimum amount of force required. If one knows that shouting will repel the aggressor, one may not strike him. If a hand is enough, a stick may not be employed. If a stick will do, a sword may not be used. If cutting the other’s hand will suffice, one may not kill him …

o7.4: When one has warded off an aggressor, it is unlawful to take further measures against him.

This is more or less in accordance with the principle of reasonable force which exists in English law, so no Muslim should be saying “this guy was a scumbag, he got what he deserved and Munir Hussain should have killed him”. What he did was a crime and it was right that he, and particularly his brother, were punished. Showing him mercy is not the same as excusing what he did.

Then we come to the case of Frances Inglis, who killed her son with a heroin overdose after he sustained brain damage from falling out of an ambulance in July 2007. She first attempted to kill him in September 2007 and then, while on bail for that attack and forbidden to see him, she sought out heroin and administered it to him in November 2008. There were conflicting reports that the young man (Thomas Inglis) could or couldn’t communicate by blinking, but the mother was convinced that he was living in some sort of living hell, but the consultant who actually treated him said that he had shown “little in the way of what seemed irrecoverable brain injuries” and that he was pleased by how Thomas seemed on the day his mother tried to kill him.

So, clearly she was not hearing what the doctor who actually treated him was saying; according to her neighbour, her son was already dead from the injuries he suffered when he fell from the ambulance. The neighbour thinks she needed medical help, as she was clearly “off her head” and not talking rationally. However, was she acting rationally by September 2007, let alone November 2008? Rationally enough to seek out heroin and find ways round the security to get to her son and kill him.

It seems to be widely accepted that Inglis acted out of love, but that is simply no defence in law when the crime is murder. She was convinced that her son was suffering, but people are often convinced of this when witnessing people deal with disability, for example, and while I do think it is important not to assume that what is true of physical disability is true of situations like this, the perception that such people’s lives are not worth living is very widespread, sometimes expressed to the disabled person’s face. She was convinced she was showing mercy, ending a life she assumed was not worth living. It is right that the law does not indulge this kind of deranged thinking or condone premeditated killings based on it.

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