Commentary By: Omer Aziz in Toronto
News that Omar Khadr would receive an official apology from the Canadian government along with a $10.5 million settlement of his civil suit elicited the predictable outcry from the Canadian media. Journalists and commentators questioned the wisdom of the decision and the amount of the settlement, and the narrative that has now taken form is of a convicted terrorist winning a taxpayer-funded lottery at the behest of a naïve prime minister.
The press has not simply questioned the wisdom of the apology and settlement—it has ignored or obscured the relevant facts that made an apology and settlement necessary in the first place. Opinion writers and pundits seem entirely uninterested in what, exactly, Khadr endured during his detention at Guantanamo Bay, and who he became afterwards.
Omar Khadr was fifteen years old in July 2002 when he allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. soldiers, killing Sgt. Christopher Speer. I say “allegedly threw” because the precise facts of what took place that day in the firefight have never been conclusively established: From 2002 to 2008, the official U.S. government story was that Khadr was the sole survivor in the compound after it had been bombarded and shot at—by inference, only Khadr could have thrown the grenade. In 2008, however, a report from the only witness to the firefight was inadvertently released to reporters. In it, the witness claimed that there were two men in the compound. The official government theory was weakened further when it was revealed that Lt. Col. Randy Watt, who had led the American battalion, wrote a report after the firefight describing how the grenade-thrower had been killed in battle. The report was later “updated” to state that the grenade-thrower was shot, not killed.
In normal circumstances, the factual inaccuracies would have been resolved at trial, except that the military commissions under which Khadr was tried were ridden with procedural and prosecutorial errors and deceptions. Khadr was interrogated without his lawyers present, and in the initial phase of the tribunal, could not even see the evidence against him. This was by design. The Bush administration had deliberately created a legal black hole: They argued that prisoners could be held in Guantanamo indefinitely, without charges, without the right to contest their detention, without even the right to know why they were there. The United States Supreme Court eventually found the first military commissions of the Bush administration to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions. As Muneer Ahmad, Omar Khadr’s first lawyer and now a professor at Yale Law School, wrote in 2008:
“The [U.S] government had sought to remove Omar and the other prisoners from the ambit of law, and in doing so, from the world. They chose Guantanamo because it was remote, then cloaked it in darkness, refusing to disclose the names or identities of those there, refusing access to the outside world. Legal erasure enabled physical erasure.”
Of the 780 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2001, 731 were eventually released without charges—often after a decade of incarceration.
The Canadian press has forgotten all of this, or perhaps they remember it but do not think it relevant. What about torture? At fifteen, Khadr was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where a bag was placed over his head. He was ordered to stand for hours. Dogs leapt at his chest.
At Guantanamo, and still a teenager, Khadr urinated on himself. The guards poured pine oil on him and dragged the shackled boy through his own piss, using him as a human mop. Khadr was sixteen when Canadian security officials interviewed him at Guantanamo, and then illegally turned over the intelligence to the Pentagon. “Promise me you’ll protect me from the Americans,” the boy said to the representatives of his government. And then he showed them his scars. He cried for his mother. He was beaten, choked, deprived of light, deprived of sleep, forced into harmful stress positions. Guantanamo guards threatened to deport him to Arab countries like Syria where, they claimed, he would be raped by other men. All of this was done to a Canadian teenager, with the Canadian government’s full support.
Under duress, Khadr eventually pled guilty. He agreed to the facts as presented by the Military Commission because he and his lawyers concluded that fighting an unjust system without due process or adequate protections for the accused was an unwinnable battle. Khadr can therefore be called a “convicted terrorist,” but not asking how that “conviction” came about is irresponsible at best, unethical at worst.
So this was the context of the $10.5 million settlement: A child soldier who allegedly threw a grenade at U.S. forces (or didn’t), who was held for thirteen years in an offshore detention center, who was repeatedly abused and tortured with his government’s assistance, whose Charter rights were violated, whose entire youth was spent in chains. Khadr asked for an apology and restitution. He has been treated as though none of this happened, as though he was just a spoiled child who should feel lucky he’s still not in gitmo. The press seems to think that reparations for Khadr’s maltreatment are a bonus that he does not deserve. But this is not about bonuses or windfalls. It is about this country’s past sins, and the moral necessity of acknowledging and atoning for those sins. That’s what enlightened, self-professed democracies do.
The saga of Omar Khadr, however, has never been about law or even policy. It’s been about how we see the crimes of people who do not look like us, and are therefore treated as conditional citizens. Radio host Charles Adler said Khadr was “technically a Canadian”—as if citizenship was subject to technical whims. Margaret Wente opined that “If there is a victim here, people feel, it’s not Mr. Khadr.” John Ivison wrote that “Khadr’s reputation is now tinged with the grubbiness of what many will consider unjust gain.” Who are the “people” and the “many” that Wente and Ivison are ventriloquizing here? They are the Canadian public, who along with the press, do not yet have the moral imagination to countenance that maybe—just maybe—Khadr was also a victim here.
A basic empathy gap has always existed between Canada and Khadr. The minute the label “terrorist” is slapped onto someone—regardless of their age, their circumstances, or even the facts—we begin thinking with the blood. We rush to violate our most sacred principles at the first whiff of anger. Our memories of others’ crimes are always long and detailed, while our own faults are extinguished with the legitimizing elixir of moral superiority. It might feel good to denounce Omar Khadr. It might be cathartic to condemn him as a confessed terrorist. But the rights of citizenship are not abrogated because a citizen has committed a crime. They are not abrogated because the government thinks you have no place in society. Those rights exist to protect all of us, especially the vulnerable.
Omar Khadr spent much of his youth being abused in an unlawful penal colony. He could have come out of this harrowing experience a bitter and spiteful man, hateful of the country who supported his torturers, and vindictive towards the citizens who applauded that decision. Instead, Khadr has conducted himself with the utmost dignity. “My past,” he recently said, “I’m not excusing it. I’m not denying it. We all do things we wish we could change. All I can do right now is focus on the present and do my best to become a productive member of society, a good person, a good human being . . . I want to finish my nursing program. I want to work as a nurse somewhere it’s needed. I want to be able to use my languages and my ability as a nurse to relieve people from pain.”
After everything that’s happened to him, Khadr is prepared to accept the ills of his past. Perhaps Canada might do the same for its own recent history.
Republished in partnership with The Walrus.
Originally published under headline: "Omar Khadr and the Shame of the Canadian Press".
During the first week of September, I stopped looking at Facebook. My news feed was full of one picture: an image of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy named Alan, face down, head turned away, in the surf of a Turkish beach.
I have a daughter who is the same age. And the shape of the boy’s corpse corresponds to her preferred sleeping position. I thought that if I avoided looking at the photo, it would stop haunting me. So far, that hasn’t worked.
The armies that propelled Alan’s family out into open water are fighting a complex civil war half a world away from us. They have confusing Arabic names and fly obscure banners. It’s hard to know who is the greatest villain.
And so Canadians instead have found it easier to direct moral outrage at our own government. Chris Alexander is our Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. His department decides whom we save, and whom we don’t. Somehow, this must be his fault.
Human beings are visual creatures
A young child’s suffering is regarded as a special kind of evil, so powerfully felt that a single image blots out everything else from our moral universe.
“I took the case of children only to make my case clearer,” Ivan says to his brother Alyosha in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, after reciting a list of infamous horrors visited upon young Russian boys and girls. “Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, I will say nothing.”
As Ivan systematically knocks out the underpinnings of his brother’s faith in a benevolent ruler, he asks a question that has become well-known among philosophers:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?
Alyosha is repelled by this seemingly monstrous hypothetical. But what Ivan described was a reality in feudal societies such as Russia, where a serf child could be murdered in front of his parents for injuring a lord’s favourite hunting dog, and the most grotesque forms of suffering were seen as pathways to God’s grace.
When Fyodor Dostoevsky was writing The Brothers Karamazov in the 1870s, he compiled his macabre case studies by clipping scattered articles from local newspapers. There were no pictures, and details were scant: Sadistic treatment of children was not unusual, and these were not considered journalistically important stories.
In 2015, however, no act of moral imagination is required to internalize the suffering of children everywhere. Just open your news feed and let the photos and video wash over you.
We always have known, somewhere in our pampered Western heads, that while we eat our breakfast and brush our teeth, unspeakable things are happening to innocent people everywhere. But human beings are visual creatures: It is one thing to hear of death, and another to see it.
With so much of the world’s savagery now landing on our screens, technology has made us the eternal Alyosha, besieged every day by the eternal Ivan. Our brains, conditioned by evolution to manage life and death within small clans, lack the circuitry to process an endless digital cascade of global grief.
Railing against government
Ivan Karamazov observed the suffering of children and railed against God. We observe the suffering of children and rail against government — the welfare state having replaced the Supreme Being as the mercy-provider of last resort.
But this God always will fail us, because in a globalized media age, our point-and-shoot moral demands have become geographically infinite and politically unstable.
Our federal government has settled 2,300 Syrian refugees to date. Thomas Mulcair wants to accept 10,000 more this year. For Justin Trudeau, the number is 25,000.
That sounds like a lot. But what happens if refugee number 25,001 is photographed washing in with the tide? Why not 50,000? Or 100,000? And what happens when a dead child is photographed on a beach in Honduras? Or Libya? Will the number be the same? More? Less? Why should there be any limit at all?
These are not just questions for politicians, but for ordinary Canadians as well. During the first weekend in September, I received an e-mail from a friend: “I think we have all been haunted by the image of Alan’s tiny lifeless body. A group of our neighbourhood friends is thinking of sponsoring a Syrian family. The approximate cost to privately sponsor a family of 4 or 5 is about $25,000 . . .”
An effective altruist has to keep reminding himself that there are little children dying all over Africa from preventable diseases, sometimes in hideous ways that might make a drowning at sea seem humane by comparison. GiveWell.org estimates the cost of saving one of these lives at about $3,000.
The math here is stark. But reasonable debates about foreign aid and immigration policy seem to evaporate in the face of Dostoevsky’s “one tiny creature.” That dissonance was captured perfectly by the mask of helpless frustration on our immigration minister’s face, as he clumsily tried to justify his government’s policies to CBC host Rosemary Barton. Which of course he couldn’t, since no one can win an argument against a dead child.
As I wrote this, I began looking at that picture again. I had to. If any of us purport to have an opinion on what must be done to address the world’s horrors, then we have a responsibility to face up to them in some small way. However, we should not expect that our instant emotions be translated into policies that will affect Canada for generations — an expectation that always will turn our politics into a sort of unsustainable humanitarian bidding war.
Every humane society must listen to “that baby beating its breast with its fist.” But we will not be able to do our part in fixing the “fabric of human destiny” if we can hear nothing else.
Re-published in partnership with The Walrus.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit