The case of Omar Ahmed Khadr has long divided Canadians into two respective camps, Bring Him Home and Let Him Rot Over There. The federal government of Canada now appears to constitute a third, having for years shilly-shallied and otherwise kept the matter in limbo.
The Let Him Rot camp might do well to review the following facts. Born in Toronto, on 19 September 1986, Khadr was eight years old (give or take a couple years) when he perhaps met the falsely accused Maher Arar. He was ten when he met Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad. After September 11, these childhood encounters constituted a state asset and a potential weapon against al-Qaeda, and as a consequence Khadr was detained, tortured, and likely permanently damaged.
There are — as always in battle — contradictions, ambiguities, and gaps in the record. On July 27, 2002 Sergeant Layne Morris lost an eye and Sergeant Christopher Speer his life in Khost, Afghanistan. The lawsuit filed on behalf of these individuals, by Morris himself and by Speer’s widow, was against the estate of Omar’s father, Ahmed Said Khadr. Some distance was to be traversed to leverage “an act of terrorism,” as the formal charge put it, against a court-enforceable civil liability. To further this case, the plaintiffs argued that Khadr senior was ultimately responsible both for the loss of an eye and the loss of life, and that his estate should pay.
This case, whatever its merits, was in my judgement aiming in the right direction. Khadr senior’s movements, from Peshawar to Logar to Jalalabad, are winks and nods to the knowing. One does not accidentally end up in Bab al-Jihad (Jihad’s Gate), as Logar is known. Nor would Ahmed Khadr be observed by intelligence agencies with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Laith al-Libi, and the bin Ladens as a matter of mere coincidence. In the case of Abu Laith al-Libi, it seems clear the young Khadr was being exploited and perhaps groomed by his elder on account of his ability to speak, among other languages, Pashto. (This detail serves to remind us that international jihadism was imported into Afghanistan by outsiders – in the case of al-Libi, a foreigner of Libyan origin.) Omar Khadr is a bright individual, and even at fifteen he had some experience of the world and would have presented himself as ripe for the taking.
One crisp January morning, on the way to a Parliamentary breakfast with members of the federal Senate, a former CBC journalist wryly told me that 80% of that august body was useless, but that the other 20% made up for it. Among the redeeming contingent is surely Senator Romeo Dallaire, who considers Omar Khadr a former child soldier, and who on this foundation rests his call for the Guantanamo Bay prisoner’s release.
Khadr, the son, may well have gone down the dead-end Jihadist road upon which Abu Laith al-Libi found his martyrdom, but at no time during the events under consideration does he appear to have been an instigator. He was a child who had the all-encompassing misfortune of being born to rotten and hateful parents, and for that proxy offence he has paid enormously — in a decade’s detention and in the currencies of interrogation, abuse and humiliation (both, please note, by American and Canadian officials). The trial which gave rise to his plea agreement was a piece of calculated cynicism designed to rehabilitate the Guantanamo name brand, by applying charges like “murder in violation of the law of war” which could be defined and re-defined as required — as indeed they were. Among those arguing the wrongness of Khadr’s treatment have been the United Nations and the Supreme Court of Canada. Last month, my own publisher McGill-Queen’s University Press released the critical anthology “Omar Khadr, Oh Canada” featuring contributions by Dallaire, Maher Arar, Craig Kielburger, and many others.
The disagreement over Khadr’s place, or lack of place, in Canada will go on, but the moral battle is in my view already lost. The Khadr detention and especially the dirty work of Guantanamo which followed was a disgrace and a crime. Now there appears a new challenge and a new opportunity, to reintegrate and restore a Canadian citizen so badly abused, by so many, and for so long.