In Edward Everett Hale’s 1863 short story “The Man Without A Country,” treasonous Lt. Philip Nolan renounces the United States, getting his wish — never to hear about his native land again. But sailing the seven seas in a military ship as a kind of Flying Dutchman or Ancient Mariner, Nolan finds the country he relinquished is everywhere, because it is lodged in his mind and, ultimately, his heart. He dies, having composed this epitaph for himself: "In memory of PHILIP NOLAN, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands."
I thought of this when I read the story of two American women who married — and were abused by — ISIS fighters and now want to come back to the United States. Hoda Muthana — the American-born daughter of a Yemeni diplomat — and Kimberly Gwen Polman, who has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, are being detained at a refugee camp in northeastern Syria. A generation apart, the two women share an impressionability poisoned by the internet and a profound remorse for what they have done.
“Once I look back on it, I can’t stress how much of a crazy idea it was,” Muthana told The New York Times. “I can’t believe it. I ruined my life. I ruined my future.”
Both understand how that sounds.
“How do you go from burning a passport to crying yourself to sleep because you have so much deep regret? How do you do that?” Polman asked. “How do you show people that?”
President Donald J. Trump has said that Muthana cannot return, even though she was born here, since she is under the jurisdiction of her diplomatic father’s homeland. (I’m sure, however, that had she not left for ISIS, she would’ve been able to claim dual citizenship.) Trump has not commented on Polman.
But why not let them come home? Everyone should have a chance at redemption, knowing that redemption has its price. Bryant Neal Viñas was an American who fought for Al Queda after Sept. 11. He served eight and a half years in prison and now works in manufacturing and with the counterterrorist organization Parallel Networks.
“I can say with confidence that arrest, full cooperation, contrition and the promise of rehabilitation can be a viable pathway forward for those Western foreign fighters who do not have ‘blood on their hands’ — didn’t kill any coalition forces overseas — and are willing to admit they made mistakes and are ready to atone for them in prison,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece.
He may be right. Why should we leave these people to be radicalized by other terrorist groups — a point Trump himself made in criticizing Western allies for not repatriating former ISIS fighters?
And why shouldn’t we exhibit the magnanimity that our enemies say we lack?