The white supremacist student sentenced to read Austen and Dickens fits a grim pattern

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R ead a book, as the old saying goes, and it will set you free. But even the power of literature surely has its limits, and this week a judge in Leicester tested them. Faced with a Nazi sympathiser convicted of downloading bomb-making instructions, and white supremacist and fascist material from the internet, Judge Spencer issued a suspended two-year sentence and instructions to read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens instead. “Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope,” he added, helpfully. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the judge thought, might be a good place to start.

It might have made more sense had he recommended Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For Ben John, the 21-year-old former student convicted of downloading more than 67,000 extreme documents, seems to have fallen down a depressingly familiar dark rabbit hole. The judge described him as a lonely individual with few, if any, proper friends. He fits a well-worn pattern of socially awkward, angry young men retreating from the outside world into dark online subcultures, where each click leads to something more extreme. For John, it was white supremacism and fascism. For others it could be Islamist fundamentalism, or a violently misogynistic incel culture, where men who can’t get women to have sex with them vent their frustrated rage against women everywhere.

All three pose a real and potentially murderous danger to society. All three are covered by the Prevent counter-terrorism programme, which picked up on John shortly after his 18th birthday, and is increasingly seeing a new kind of referral that blurs the boundaries between the three categories: less conventionally ideological, more nihilistic, but no less violent. Spencer ordered John to report back to court every four months, to check that he really was doing the reading. But it’s not easy to see how a diet of bonnet dramas (who imagines he won’t be tempted just to watch the TV adaptations?) can succeed where more conventional counter-terrorism programmes have apparently failed. And many will wonder whether a brown-skinned teenager falling down a rabbit hole of Islamic State propaganda would have got away – if only, as the judge said, by the skin of his teeth – with a lecture on the merits of Pride and Prejudice.

It’s never wise to second guess a sentencing decision without having heard all the testimony and read the confidential psychiatric evaluations, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that Spencer has better reasons than may be immediately obvious for treating this as an isolated case of “teenage folly”. Let’s hope John’s defence counsel is right that he is not a lost cause, but still capable of developing a normal, pro-social life. But there are too many more lost young men out there, isolated even before the pandemic but arguably more so during it, who may be about to test our powers of de-radicalisation to destruction.

Show me a parent who hasn’t felt guilty about the amount of screen time their teenagers had during the lockdowns of the last year, and I’ll show you a liar. But while most of us fret about them becoming addicted to gaming, in some cases that barely scratches the surface of the problem.

Neil Basu, the Metropolitan police assistant commissioner who leads on counter-terrorism policy, told MPs last autumn his “greatest single fear” was a rise in online extremism driving vulnerable people towards violence, with children as young as 13 beginning to talk about committing terrorist acts. The government-appointed independent Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) also warned shortly after the first lockdown of a rise in online extremism and conspiracy theories during the pandemic, as repellent old narratives became interwoven with new anxieties about Covid that were capable of drawing in new audiences. The far right falsely accuses people from ethnic minorities of spreading the virus; Islamists claim the pandemic is punishment for the degeneracy of the west; antisemites rant that it’s all part of some mythical Jewish plot. And more time spent online, in a climate of heightened paranoia and isolation, creates the perfect conditions for hardening every kind of existing prejudice, from racism to homophobia. (It was a letter ranting against gay people, immigrants and liberals that originally brought John to counter-terrorism officers’ attention.)

You can see it in milder form on mainstream social media, where lockdown sharpened the edges of battles on Twitter and Facebook that were already borderline hysterical. Now imagine what was happening in the places you don’t see, during lockdowns where long absences from school and university made it harder for sharp-eyed professionals to identify teenagers at risk of radicalisation. As the CCE recommended, what’s needed is a revised counter-terrorism strategy reflecting this evolving post-Covid threat, tackling both the proliferation of hate material online and the factors driving the angry and unhappy people to hunt for it in the first place. That means investing not only in the Prevent programme, but in children’s mental health services, too.

Not all radicalised teens will turn to physical violence. But even among those who don’t, one legacy of Covid may be a dangerous entrenching of hateful and extreme private beliefs with potentially far-reaching consequences for society as this generation grows older. As Alice says of her own disorienting trip down the rabbit hole: “I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” For those who have drunk too deeply from a bottle that turned out to contain poison, we urgently need a better antidote.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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