The Dilemma of Omar Khadr

The debate over whether Canada should ask for the return of Omar Khadr, who some have characterized as a victimized child soldier and others have declared a ruthless terrorist, is at once a visceral conundrum as well as a crisis of philosophy. I have firmly maintained since the beginning of the “War on Terror” that the greatest risk to our culture in the West is that our emotion overwhelms our reason to such an extent that our own ideology changes and we cease being who we were; the terrorists win by making us become different from how we were, and score a massive victory if they make us become more like themselves. Some have decried the consideration of Omar Khadr for repatriation as an injustice, and would rather see him buried in some dark hole, left in Guantanamo, returned to Afghanistan or put to death. Such strong opinions are fueled by the fear that Khadr is still a radical bent on killing westerners. Fear is a strong motivator, as the terrorists are well aware.

But, our culture believes in rehabilitation and restorative justice, not punitive justice. And, for all its perceived faults, our justice system has recorded declining violent crime and homicide rates for over four decades, so we must be doing something right. If we truly believe that a crime should be fairly punished and the criminal rehabilitated to return as a productive member of society, why would we not believe that Omar Khadr can be rehabilitated as well? Does our fear for our own safety, a fear amplified by media and government portrayal of the great scourge of radicalized terrorism, justify an abandonment of our basic values? Or did we abandon those long ago, when the smoke cleared on 9/11?


There are diverging professional opinions on who Omar Khadr is, at the bottom of it all.

We know the facts as they have been presented: Omar Khadr, then a teenager, threw a hand grenade that ultimately killed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer. in Afghanistan in 2002. Sgt. Speer was part of a force sent in to “disarm” a camp purported to be a staging ground for al-Qaida attacks, and Khadr was just one of several insurgents who fought back. Khadr agreed to confess to the crime as part of a plea with the prosecution, and was sentenced to 8 years in prison for the killing. Under the agreement, Khadr was to be held in US custody for the first year of this jail term. After that, he could be returned to Canada.

Canada hasn’t asked for him back.

Two doctors spent time with Khadr and investigated the case, with one coming to the conclusion that Khadr is a dangerous radical who will remorselessly return to his jihad, while the other feels certain that Khadr is a peaceful and considerate young man who has no intention of wrongdoing. And the divergence of opinion is pretty telling: we simply don’t know. How can you unequivocally know what is in another person’s mind? How can you be sure which expert has pinned it right, and which has made a miscalculation?

Asked why he thinks Khadr is still a radical, Dr. Michael Welner gives what I would consider to be pretty shaky evidence:

“Khadr’s history of having killed an American soldier, his being the son of an al-Qaeda leader, his being in a family that fashions itself as an al-Qaeda family and therefore able to provide support from outside prison, his access to media who wish to decriminalize his jihadist violence and to legitimize his grievance, his access to devoted NGOs and pro bono Canadian and American legal talent no ordinary citizen could dream of, his having memorized the Qur’an, his fluency in English and Western social skills.”

So, Khadr is presently a radical because he was in the past? He is still a radical because of the crime that he commited 10 years ago, to which he confessed? And because of his family? And because of what other people have turned his “cause” into? And because he has memorized the Qur’an, as probably many other devoutly religious non-radicalized muslims have done? And because he speaks good english and has social skills?

Might as well just say “like father, like son,” and go ahead and condemn the children of convicted criminals everywhere. Guilt by association, pure and simple. Is that enough reason to abandon our ideals?

Before anyone casts aspersions, I do not support terrorism. I’m not a pacifist, per se, but I don’t really support the notion of war either. I mean, I generally find violence to be the tool of inadequate and lazy minds. Maybe you sometimes have no other choice, but usually that’s simply because you haven’t found a better way. We have so many domestic issues, poverty, hunger and homelessness that spending billions of dollars blowing eachother up seems like the mother of all stupidity, particularly when the reason for our conflicts are generally self-induced and hypocritical at the root. I don’t support the notion of some dude in Afghanistan directing a plane into a bulding in New York. But, I also don’t support the notion that that dude killing an armed soldier in Afghanistan is murder, when a soldier killing that dude is considered bravery.

I have a difficult time understanding how Khadr can be convicted of murder for killing a soldier during a “War” o terror. If you are fighting a war, you are one of two or more sides in opposition trying to have your cause prevail through violent attrition. If killing Khadr would have been considered a justifiable act for the soldier, it really can’t be considered unjustifiable for Khadr to have killed the soldier. I know that’s not how we want to see it. We want to see it as good vs evil, the brave vs the monsters. But, you can’t call something a war and expect that your adversary is going to remain pacifist.

Leaving that aside, though, what should we really do about Omar Khadr? It’s absolutely absurd and naive to think that, if he is returned to Canada, he will ever live a normal life. Let’s be realistic, he will have so much surveillance and covert observation centered on him for the rest of his days that we might as well call him a Kardashian and give him his own television series. Say what we like, we will never trust him, ideals be damned. I think what this really comes down to is a deep sense that Khadr hasn’t been punished enough. His sentence was too light, too short, and he should suffer more for having been the monster who killed a brave fighter for freedom and good. It bothers us at some primal level that we could see him walking free after his sentence is complete because Sgt. Speer is nothing but a collection of photos, headlines and memories. After all, Khadr represents a denial of who we are as Canadians and Americans, a counterpoint to our ideals and values, and there is some intense, visceral cognitive dissonance in treating Khadr, a symbol of opposition to our values, according to the tenets of our cultural beliefs.

What happens if we don’t, though?

If we can treat another human being as unworthy of our basic consideration, and consider them exempt from our basic principles of restorative justice, how can we deny another person the right to treat us as different and less? If it’s right for us to treat some people as less than human, and unworthy of what we would consider to be the rights and privileges of any other human being, how can we say it’s wrong that some people in the world would want to terrorize us? We either believe that human beings are worthy of certain inalienable rights, and that our beliefs dictate a certain behaviour in certain situations, or we allow our values to be subjective, and in doing so destroy any notion of fairness and justice in who we are.

That is allowing the terrorists to win. We let the monsters win by becoming more a monster ourselves.

The dilemma of Omar Khadr is important not because of Khadr himself, but because it cuts to the heart of the conflict we have fought since that terrible morning in 2001. How do you fight fear, and when is it right to allow yourself to change because you are afraid? When do we know that fear has won? For Khadr, the future is amply uncertain. We don’t know if he will ever set foot on Canadian soil again, and we may never know what is in his heart. The only thing we can hope for in this situation is to make a stand for what we believe is right, not just for Khadr, but for who we declare ourselves to be as Canadians.

I just hope that after we do so we recognize ourselves in the mirror.

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