The Khadr conundrum

As today’s news notes, “Omar Khadr has pleaded guilty to murder, attempted murder, supporting terrorism, conspiracy and spying” from the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian, remains the last citizen of a Western nation imprisoned at the controversial Guantanamo detention centre, but it appears he will be back in Canada within the year to serve the remainder of an eight-year sentence for the crimes to which he has now admitted.

If there’s ever been a more vexing series of problems for concerned Canadians than Khadr’s case, I don’t know what it is.

Many Canadians will concur with Tabitha Speer, widow of the American Special Forces soldier Khadr has now admitted to killing with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002. For Speer, Khadr’s plea is an iron bound confession and his sentence means justice is now being done. Tabitha Speer’s affidavit is compelling reading; it is a self-portrait of a grieving person dealing with the agony of loss for herself and her family.

For others, Khadr’s guilty plea represents only his resignation to the fact that his road to freedom lies in accepting guilt. Some will argue he’s pleaded guilty to a crime he may not have committed, and that indeed may not be a crime. After all, Khadr was 15 at the time of the firefight in which Sgt First Class Christopher J. Speer, a medic, was mortally njured, and Khadr himself was severely wounded and captured. This makes him a child soldier in the eyes of many, not an “unlawful enemy combatant” as he’s been designated by the American military. Others wonder what justification exists for charging any combatant for taking a defensive role in a war of occupation on the other side of the world from the nation now administering justice.

Even conservative columnist Peter Worthington, who figured Khadr was doing fine at Guantanamo, notes that a charge of “murder” makes no sense in a war.

Khadr’s own affidavit
contains distressing accounts of his treatment at the hands of his American captors, and a worrying number of blacked-out passages that suggest even more compelling descriptions. Many argue Khadr’s treatment in Guantanamo amounts to torture.

Then there’s the question of Guantanamo itself: outside American legal jurisdiction, a holding tank for prisoners of the “War on Terror” famously declared by George Bush to be beyond the reach of the Geneva Convention. Hundreds of detainees have passed through the site; most have either been released without charges or transferred to detention facilities in their home jurisdictions.

Prior to Khadr, just three Guantanamo of detainees had been convicted of terror-related offenses. President Barrack Obama famously promised to close Guantanamo, keenly aware that in the eyes of much of the world, “Gitmo” represented a stain on the reputation of the U.S. Notably, Canada is now the only Western nation in support of the Guantanamo facility at this point.

Many Canadians have been desperately appealing for Khadr’s return to Canada, arguing that as a whole his youth, the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, and the dubious legal framework around Guantanamo detentions together amount to a miscarriage of justice against a Canadian citizen.

Others insist that involvement in deadly actions against our American allies in Afghanistan is a crime deserving of the most severe punishment; the fact that the Khadr family is widely suspected of support for terrorism has hasn’t helped Omar Khadr gain support. According to U.S. government sources, his father, Ahmed Said Khadr was a senior al-Qaeda operative who helped fund terrorist training camps. If Khadr took part, as claimed, in operations at his father’s side, he’s far from being a clear-cut sympathetic figure.

Still, I’d like to make a principled stand. I can’t understand how a child soldier isn’t a child soldier, period. I can’t stomach the Geneva Convention being contravened. I’m concerned about allegations that Khadr was mistreated in Guantanamo and that genuine justice has been unavailable to him. I don’t see how Guantanamo has advanced America’s interests, let alone its standing in the world. And I don’t want Canadians held under whatever pretense without our government supporting the rights that go with citizenship. Plus, Khadr’s already been held for a terribly long time under awful conditions.

Yet I feel this case lies outside my ability to state a clear moral opinion with conviction.

Canadian principles include support for our allies, and the U.S. despite its many issues remains foremost among them. I believe America was attacked on 9/11 and that a vigorous defense against the forces that perpetrated the attack was necessary. It’s true that attempts to defeat “terror” at home and abroad have been bumbling. It’s clear that national interests around oil and influence abroad have influenced the effort. Nevertheless, rooting out terror cells like al-Qaeda is in our interest too. Canada is not neutral. In this imperfect world we must still stand with our allies despite their flaws.

Does that mean it was right to leave Khadr – one among many “unlawful combatants” as determined by the U.S. – to twist in the winds of injustice? Is his Canadian citizenship worth less than that of any other Canadian? I don’t know. It doesn’t sound right. But Khadr isn’t just any other Canadian, and never will be. Especially now that he’s admitted guilt to a horrifying list of offenses, however that admission may have come about.

Omar Khadr will likely be “home” in Canada in a year or so. At that point, whatever the issues are become fully our own.

Maybe at that point, we’ll get some collective clarity on this unique challenge to our policies and principles.

The Khadr case is still a conundrum to me.

10 comments on “The Khadr conundrum

  1. Very well stated, David, but I think the argument you make in favour of Khadr’s incarceration, trial and classification as a murderer is dead wrong. Standing with Allies is one thing, accepting their inhumane prisons, torture, “trials”, verdicts, quite another. He is a CDN citizen, like any other, there can only be one class of citizens. Our government had a choice, to fight for his release, or not to, and chose not to. I would have expected a lot more from our leaders, and from ourselves.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I haven’t made any argument in favour of classification as a murderer; I’ve explicitly stated that makes no sense.

    I’m somewhat swayed by the argument that he’s a Canadian citizen like any other – on paper.

    But what that paper designation actually MEANS clearly varies from person to person, especially when the person in question spent half his life in Pakistan, and not in the company of admirable upholders of Canadian values.

    There are people who hold Canadian citizenship who are not worthy of it. There are Canadian “citizens” who put other values and loyalties higher than their loyalty to their country and its values. There are people who use our system for their own nefarious purposes.

    Is Khadr such a person? It’s very hard to tell, but it doesn’t look like he’s anyone’s idea of a loyal Canadian. Was he treated rightly? I don’t think so. That’s why this issue is hard.

    I can’t declare whole-heartedly that I want this guy in Canada.

    But I’m still open to being convinced and I thank you for the clear statement of your own principles.

    It’s compelling.

  3. I am disappointed this terrorist chickened out and the trial did not take place because if it had I am sure that this terrorist and his whole family would have been exposed for that they are. They use Canada as a safe haven to plot their terrorists activities. They should all be in jail and they are not worthy of anyone feeling any sympathy for them. They’d kill you in a heartbeat and laugh at your weakness.
    He needs to be kept in jail as a terrorist not fit to be in public and as a traitor to the western world.

  4. I too have doubts about the charge of murder as it relates to a battlefield death. He should have, along with all his comrades in arms been held as a POW. When hostilities between the two combatants cease then he can be returned to Afghanistan to live as he sees fit.
    The label Child Soldier is one I have the most difficulty accepting. This was not some kid who was shanghaied from his village at gun point rather he flew half way around the world to join the fight and the preponderance of evidence, though anecdotal at best suggests he was eager to participate. This should not be seen as support for or against Mr Khadr but rather my lame defence of terms like Child Soldier, War Criminal, and such. These words are powerful condemnations of reprehensible human behaviour and their use should be reserved for only the most egregious offenders.

  5. You are writing this in a somewhat sensationalist way for no reason I can fathom — “horrifying list of crimes” ?

    Americans are big on their right to bear arms and self defense. Given that, this is the height of hypocrisy. However can defending yourself against people actively trying to kill you be a crime? This was supposedly a war zone so either the rules of war apply and everyone there is a soldier or they don’t and everyone there was an illegal combatant — US invaders included. I don’t like Khadr, Al Qaeda or militants generally but I dislike hypocrisy just as much. I would agree that the Geneva conventions are difficult to apply when two Nation-states are not involved but that means something new needs to be established and until then the conventions are the only international rules. The US just wants to just make up rules to suit itself.

    Given that this was a war zone, Speer’s death was just another combat death. The scariest idea I see in all this is the establishment of an effective right for US soldiers to kill anyone they want anywhere outside the US with impunity. You can say that’s ludicrous but a quick scan through the wiki leaks release shows they are doing this right now. They have a second army of lawyers willing to label even killing non-combatants with their arms in the air as justified. To go beyond that and say that people who fight back can be sued is just absurd. The precedent being established here is that Americans are worth more than anyone else regardless of where or when. Note that “wrongful deaths” in Iraq net the families just a few hundred dollars, not $100M and that’s only if it gets reported properly with no weapons “found”.

    I believe in universal Human rights — all lives have equal value. We should hold the US to this too. As far as I can tell, only taking this stand will stop their next invasion/ police action/ drone strike/ etc… and in the long run the US showing some respect to other peoples is the only way they will get out of this mess.

    As for Khadr in Canada. I don’t like him but there is a principle at stake here. Bring him here and then free him because he was a child at the time *and* acting in self defense. Then watch him like a hawk and nail him to the wall if he looks twice at anything illegal. Is there risk? Probably. But Human Rights are universal — you can’t pick and choose who gets them or you risk being like the US and rightly reviled as a result.

  6. Thank you David for one of the clearest, most realistic descriptions of the situation I have yet read. Your conflicted feelings are shared by (probably) most Canadians WRT citizenship versus actions whether or not they would admit it.

    I agree with TDK on the child soldier issue; that the term was defined for those situations where a family or village was plundered of children for them to be goaded or forced into taking up arms. Khadr’s case of him eagerly, or so it seems, following in the footsteps of his father and brothers does not meet that standard.

    Here’s a thought let him come back and then we can throw the rest of the family in jail for making him into the very same child soldier we are repeatedly being told he was.

  7. Well said, David. There are no easy answers in this case. I have always felt uneasy about this situation. On one hand, his family definitely aren’t typical Canadians. On the other, the US military holds all the cards in this case. The kid never stood a chance of getting a fair trial, primarily because the Americans have engineered a situation in which “allied soldiers” are occupying Afghanistan and lawfully fighting, where “enemy insurgents” are somehow unlawfully fighting simply because they don’t wear camouflage uniforms.

  8. Well said, David. There are no easy answers in this case. I have always felt uneasy about this situation. On one hand, his family definitely aren’t typical Canadians. On the other, the US military holds all the cards in this case. The kid never stood a chance of getting a fair trial, primarily because the Americans have engineered a situation in which “allied soldiers” are occupying Afghanistan and lawfully fighting, where “enemy insurgents” are engaged in an illegal act simply because they don’t wear camouflage uniforms.

  9. At last he admits what the majority of us believed all along. HE WAS GUILTY! You poor bleeding hearts how you must feel now. I just hate the thought that my tax dollars will be supporting him in our spa type prisons. I think they should revoke his citizenship and ship him back to his first love, a Muslim country.

  10. I knew Chris Speer. We went through Special Forces training together. He was a very kind, soft spoken man. When I heard of Chris’s death my rage and anger was palpable. I, after reading more about his family in Canada made me more enraged. The more I learned about the young man who killed my friend the more I began to see that there were two victims. Chris and the young brainwashed boy from a radical Islamic father. Over the years I have tempered my emotions with the understanding that this young man, if not for his Father would have never been in the situation or mindset to end up in Afghanistan. I do hope this young man after serving his time reflects on his early life and I hope he sees the merits of embracing the true Canadian values of tolerance, law and freedom.

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