8 Terrifying Life Lessons From a Former Terrorist

#4. The War Goes on in Prison

Borja Sanchez Trillo / Stringer / Getty

Shane returned home in 1974 when the IRA arranged a cease-fire with the British government.

"One or two of us were told we maybe shouldn't go home, because we were wanted for the bombings. After months, though, I went home. My mom was living in a nice area, not the Catholic ghettos. And when I went to visit her, an undercover police squad arrested me at gunpoint. I was told, 'We're arresting you to wreck the cease-fire.'"

Ira Day Sealy / Denver Post / Getty
"And, y'know, quotas."

Shane was imprisoned by angry police officers who knew that his arrest would provoke more violence, which would allow them to provide more violence in response. It was an Inception of brutal dickitry. And it worked; the night of his arrest, a young cop was murdered in retaliation. It happened to be the son of Shane's prison warden, because sometimes Lady Fate is an angry drunk.

"... they beat the shit out of me for a couple of days. I was in the cell at the window hearing the dead march while this 18-year-old cop's body was carried from his father's house to a grave."

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At this point in the story, we feel you guys have earned a baby polar bear.

Shane was eventually sentenced to 30 life sentences, which some of you probably think is insane for a man so young, and some of you probably consider far too light for a damn terrorist. For his part, Shane (and other arrested IRA men) considered themselves soldiers. And for several confusing reasons, that meant constant nudity:

"I refused to wear a criminal uniform in prison. So I spent my first 14 months in prison naked in solitary. When I came out of solitary, I was really skinny because I'd barely eaten ... I was surrounded by these movie-style 6-foot 4-inch muscle-bound prisoners. Paki, Sikh, Londoners, gangsters ... and they all kept back from me because I was this crazy solitary naked IRA kid. 'This fucking guy's crazy, you know.'"

#3. There's Only One Way to Reform a Terrorist

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Shane entered solitary confinement a defiant, naked terrorist. He left solitary a pacifist who wanted nothing more than an end to the violence. Was it the overpowering peace-instilling effect of prolonged nudity? Not entirely:

"What undermined my belief in the IRA more than anything were the Gospels and, hats off to the Brits, when I was an unrepentant terrorist ... not only did two labor MPs visit me doggedly, but Cardinal Basil Hume visited me. There was this British openness to the enemy, and it helped me change my life. And my life helped to change other people's lives."

Martyrs mostly teach one sort of lesson.

Members of the British government -- people Shane had tried to kill months before -- made a point to befriend him in prison. Not to trick him into revealing information, but to convince him they were people, too, and to show him the reality behind the "monsters" he'd been fighting. Long, slow periods of compassion and empathy will never make for a more exciting climax than the protagonist wading into the villain's lair with a minigun, but in real life, they're the most effective weapons against terrorism.

Rob Taggart / Stringer / Hulton Archive / Getty
Sadly, it's tough to set "compassion" to a John Williams score.

"I never forget these people who crossed the divide of horror and tabloid criticism. To me that's a heroic story that no one has ever told. I've always felt that the acts of those people, to go to the enemy and listen and learn and engage, saved me. Any time my name was mentioned in the papers, there was this screaming excess. But behind the scenes, these people kept visiting and helping me to grow up out of my teenage fucking horror."

#2. Rehabilitation Is Another Battle

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Shane had reformed internally, but that wasn't enough for all the people he'd bombed and attempted to bomb, obviously. He needed to make amends, but sadly, Hallmark doesn't make a "Sorry I mailed explosives to your home" card.

David Cairns / Hulton Archive / Getty
What do you even send with that? A fruit basket?

"When I was in solitary, I read one piece in the Gospels that really burned me: 'If you come to the altar to offer your gift ... go first and be reconciled to your brother.' So I called to the prison chaplain I'd formerly told to fuck off and told him I wanted to write apology letters to my victims. The British Home Office said, 'We're not letting any IRA scum bomber write letters.' So I fought for a year to get the right to apologize to my victims. After a year, they decided to let the chaplain write on my behalf, using my words. That was 1978.

"A few people sold those letters to News of the World, and the story of what I was doing got out. Gigantic headline: 'Anger as IRA Bomber Says Sorry.' Suddenly my secret was out in the open. This caused consternation among the IRA lifers because no one ever said sorry, and no one ever said 'I'm guilty.' I was very much out on a limb here. The press attacked me for saying sorry, some of my victims attacked me for saying sorry, the prison authorities thought it was bullshit. And many old comrades said they'd never apologize; you were damned if you didn't say sorry, and more damned if you did say sorry."

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It was one of those "stabbed if you do, stabbed if you don't" situations.

Regardless of the reception or the effectiveness of the letters, the important thing was that Shane was the first IRA terrorist to actually apologize and express regret. And terrorists who live to regret their terrorism are a rare group. But they're an important one, because ...

#1. Reformed Terrorists Can Reform Communities

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"I went up on the wing of the prison and told the other IRA guys I no longer wanted to be part of a campaign of violence. These guys thought I'd lost it in solitary. A couple of them sent me word they were considering killing me, lest I become an informer. I assured them that for me the whole thing was a moral question; I questioned attacks on civilians, or attacks that discounted civilian casualties. How did we, the noble freedom fighters, wind up bombing English civilians?"

Repatriated to Northern Ireland after 10 years in English prisons, Shane refused to go to the IRA-controlled wings and instead stayed in a wing mainly populated by sex offenders and ODCs (ordinary decent criminals). He spent years there, and gradually his example led other IRA and Loyalist (the terrorists who hated the IRA) inmates to "defect" and join him in the prison's neutral zone.

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You'd be surprised what a shankless environment does for morale.

Keep in mind that the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland mixed about as well as gin and milk. This prison was the first time many of them ever came together in a nonviolent context.

"All young Protestants went to British Protestant schools and learned British Protestant history. And Catholics all went to Catholic schools that taught Irish history, and the Rising. Intermarriage was unheard of through the '60s and the '70s."

As Shane pointed out, this separation made the enemy into an "other," which made it easy to justify murdering them. But once these former terrorists got to hang out in a nonviolent context, they started forming friendships.

David Lomax / Stringer / Hulton Archive / Getty
Above: the extent of their previous contact.

"Their comrades in the ghettos hadn't had that sharing experience, so when we released the prisoners in the '90s, it furthered that reconciliation. These guys went back to communities where their comrades hadn't crossed the divide, and they were able to do the work integrated schools would have done. And still might in the future."

Reformation is never going to be as sexy as revenge when it comes to dealing with terrorists, but Ireland was once as much of a hotbed of violence as Palestine. And today it's a place where you can safely drink your night away and stagger home at 4 a.m. without spontaneously exploding from anything besides whiskey and half-digested chips. Just something to consider.

Related Reading: Make sure you take a look at bombings from the other side of the conflict. Or see how easy it is to get tangled up in murder. Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.

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