What a Mess

omar-khadr terry reith:cbc
Omar Khadr (Credit: Terry Reith/CBC)

The Canadian government announced today the details of its settlement agreement with Omar Khadr. Khadr, born in Toronto, was held in Guantanomo Bay for 10 years after he pleaded guilty to murder and war crimes in the killing of an American medic, Christopher Speer. Khadr received an official apology and $10.5 million in compensation for the government’s violation of his Charter rights.

There, that’s the easy part.

Or is it? Khadr’s case is remarkable, in large part because of its complexity. The whole issue is rife with bias and partisanship, and rarely in public issues are the divides so great, the middle ground so narrow. And while I say that the simple background information I provided above was the easy part, even those facts (and they are facts) are slanted to one side.

For example, why didn’t I mention that Khadr was likely tortured in Guantanamo, and that his confession was almost certainly made under duress? On the other side, why didn’t I note that he was part of the Taliban, his father had close ties to Osama bin Laden, or that he built IEDs for use against coalition forces? Why did I feel compelled to note that he had been in Guantanamo for so long? Why didn’t I say that he was the last citizen of a Western country to be detained there, or that since he has returned to Canada he has been the model of a repentant and reformed convict?

The answer is that this case is just such an incredible mess that it is nearly impossible to be sure what information is necessary, what information is useless, and what factors are most decisive. There are so many competing values and issues, which is part of why the issue is so polarizing. When you buy into one side, there are very clearly some parts of the saga that you care about, some that you don’t. But to explicitly ignore portions of the story, or to devalue them, is to make a bold value judgment that is, in this murky case, very questionable.

Probably, the most basic point of contention is whether Khadr was a child soldier or a terrorist. It is this point that most easily divides observers and commentators into two distinct camps.

At 15, Khadr was considered mature by his family and his society, though still obviously a minor, legally speaking. Then again, he was manifestly active in a terrorist group, and was not explicitly coerced into working with the Taliban. But what role did the intense influence of his father play? One can only imagine the pressure Khadr would have felt in that situation, whether his heart was with the group or not.

I don’t think Khadr was a child soldier, and I also tend to believe that, based on the evidence, he is guilty of at least some of the crimes of which he was accused and confessed. But I also recognize that the legal battles surrounding the incident itself have merit, and that his confession is almost certainly tainted by torture tactics applied in Guantanamo. Without a doubt, he was deeply influenced by his family, and given a more free choice he may not have acted the same way. I think therefore that Khadr deserved to be detained and tried, but not in Guantanamo. Further, the Canadian government should obviously have made more significant and diligent attempts to repatriate one of their citizens.

So that’s what I think — but I’ve just made a whole bundle of assumptions and value statements, along with some claims about the facts of the matter. I’ve ignored some things and decided to emphasize others. I’ve assumed, for example, that Khadr’s citizenship rights are important, his crimes notwithstanding. I’ve also tried to stake out some middle ground between the absolutist views of child soldier and terrorist, and that ground may or may not exist. I feel that it’s almost impossible for me to know whether I’ve made the right evaluation of the matter. Just another mess.

When you apply this thinking to the question of the recent settlement itself, it gets even more complicated. If you think that Khadr was a terrorist, does that make up for what is clearly a violation of his rights as a citizen? Should Khadr even be able to sue the government? When he did sue, why didn’t the government fight harder against it — why settle?

Then there’s a whole host of slightly more peripheral issues. For starters, does the Canadian government have any responsibility to the widow and family of the American Khadr killed? One of the nasty little details of the settlement is that it went through just before an injunction requested by Speer’s widow, Tabitha Speer, could come into force, meaning she was not able to stop Khadr from receiving the payment. But does the government have any moral, let alone legal, obligation to a foreign citizen?

The government’s position seems to be to take the issue as narrowly as possible. By limiting the discussion to the obligations of the government vis-a-vis Khadr, it hopes to avoid weighing in on the case as whole. The way the Liberals would have it, Khadr’s rights as a citizen were clearly violated by the Canadian government (as the Supreme Court has concluded) and so it has acted to rectify that violation. Case closed, if you’re Justin Trudeau.

Of course, the settlement doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that’s why the whole situation is being re-litigated (in every sense of the word) as I type this.

But the wider the discussion ranges, the more things can seem relevant and the messier the situation gets. There are just so many things to consider that it’s no wonder that many commentators and normal Canadians have defaulted to positions that align closely with the child soldier/terrorist dichotomy.

Should we care, for example, that a different American medic saved Khadr’s life that day, after he had been shot twice? Should we consider the settlement to be simply prudential, as Khadr had a solid chance of winning his $20 million suit? Can we buy Andrew Scheer’s argument that repatriation itself is enough compensation for the rights violations (I don’t)?

The ridiculous complexity of the issue is certainly part of why Khadr’s case is so divisive. But even more than this, the case exposes some of the root conflicts in how we weigh and discuss competing values and even facts. And when those disagreements are as fundamental to the case as the child soldier/terrorist binary, they tend to obscure the rest of the story, which might otherwise moderate the conversation and lead to a more balanced or nuanced view of the issue.

One would think that the more factors there are to consider, the greater complexity, the more likely one is to accept a mix of facts from the two sides of the conversation. This, from what I can tell, is not what has happened in Khadr’s case. Rather, the myriad of factors has made the simple answers “he’s a terrorist” or “he was a child soldier” much more attractive.

At its core, the Khadr case is not simply an issue of whether he was one of these two things. Even if I felt comfortable labelling him “child soldier” or “terrorist,” I would have to acknowledge that he barely resembles the idealized conception of either. Khadr exists somewhere in the middle of this divide, or outside it entirely.

Like most public debates, it is not about choosing whether to go left or right down a fork in the road, but about carefully balancing facts and values in the most reasonable way possible, like a scale. This means acknowledging first the messiness of the issue, and the lack of a simple answer to difficult questions.

The government has failed to acknowledge this fact by dealing narrowly with the question of rights, but its critics have similarly struggled to engage with the complex nature of the case. Rather, the Conservatives have simply bought the terrorist narrative wholesale. Ironically, they have failed to show to Khadr, a victim of longterm detention and torture, a similar compassion that they have demanded the government show to Tabitha Speer.

The realities of political parties often force politicians into the most extreme positions, but we need not, as individuals, fall into the same trap. This case is just too complex. There are no easy answers.


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