In 2002 Omar Khadr, then 15, was accused of killing an American soldier. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay where he’s been imprisoned ever since, not receiving a trial or any help moving from his early teen years to manhood. He’s now 22, and there is talk of trying him for murder, or sending him back to Canada where he’d be released. He is a Canadian citizen, though his parents were devoted to al qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
He barely survived a special forces assault, and is accused of having killed an American soldier, though the direct evidence is unclear and probably would not stand up in a court of law. There is a confession, but the defense claims that it was forced. Given that he was a confused teen being kept in confinement in extremely difficult situations, it would be hard to accept that confession. This whole debate, frankly, causes me to be ashamed of the way my country has acted.
First, the argument that these people are ‘hard core terrorists’ and thus must not be released, even if the evidence is murky or won’t stand up in court, is dubious at best, un-American at worst. There are thousands of hard core terrorists in Afghanistan and the Mideast. A percentage of those in Guantanamo may be as well, and might join others to plot some kind of nefarious deed against Americans or others in their homelands. But we don’t know all the facts, and there may be many who either were swept up by false suspicion, or as in this case, had been abused by their parents to want to kill and die for a cause they were brainwashed to believe in.
I am convinced that we should stick to our principles — rule of law, and a belief in our values. If we surrender those to paranoia, then we might be a bit more secure, but at what cost? And we may not even be more secure, if how we treat the enemy or those we suspect of being the enemy helps terror organizations recruit and maintain hatred of US actions.
However, there are other troubling aspects of all this. Afghanistan has been a war zone since 2001. American soldiers have gone in there and killed a number of enemy combatants, and many civilians have died as well. If an American soldier were to be caught by al qaeda, would they have a right to try him or her for murder for doing what they considered their duty? Wouldn’t we be up in arms with anger if it were announced that there was a secret al qaeda prison camp with US soldiers being held indefinitely? And why is it that when their side kills it is murder, but when our side kills it’s simply war? Since we’re powerful, can we hold ourselves to a different moral standard?
Some might say that this is different because it’s terrorism and not war. But where do you draw the line? What is the ‘war on terror’ if it is not a war? What is meant by “the war in Afghanistan” if you want to call all the enemy fighters terrorists? And isn’t there a difference between flying airplanes into the World Trade Center on the one hand, or fighting against what you perceive as an invading army on the other? The argument, of course, is that in 2002 Afghanistan had already developed a post-Taliban government and therefore the war was officially over. But that then works against the claim that they are ‘enemy combatants’ and would require some charge against them to be filed.
Then, of course, is the age of Omar. In my class on War and Peace we’re going to read a book Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Baeh. I’ve co-taught courses on children and war with a Child Development expert. The fact is that just as Baeh could be rehabilitated and go on to live a relatively normal life, the same could happen with Omar Khadr. He was young and a victim of intense propaganda. Treated correctly, he could have been helped. Now, who knows. He was stuffed in this camp with a bunch of hard core terrorists for seven years, it’s uncertain how that affects some one. In much of the world we try to convince children who were forced or manipulated to become soldiers that it is not their fault, and help them overcome their experience. But apparently we only care about the humanity of those fighting wars against other people, not us.
I can understand the fear and paranoia that lead to the use of Guantanamo Bay as a prison camp. It was shortly after 9-11-01, and people feared that terrorism was going to continue and that Islamic extremism and Bin Laden were an existential threat. But fear can overtake rationality. It turns out that Bin Laden had a group of hard core followers, but wasn’t the well connected global matermind people made him out to be shortly after the terror strikes. People took what they could imagine as possible — nuclear terror strikes, biological warfare, etc. — and treated it as probable. Fear does that to you.
Yet now, we have perspective. A good counter-terrorism strategy is tough to design and implement. It’s as much about winning hearts and minds as killing foes. It deals with terrorism on multiple levels, sometimes requring military action, often focusing on undercutting the root causes for youth joining such a movement. Most importantly it requires consistency instead of fear-based reactions. Terrorists can get lucky and have a successful attack. To over-react is usually to play into their hands; counter-terrorism has to be consistent and not dependent on wild fits of fear every time they manage to pull something off.
All of it is meaningless, however, if we sacrifice our values. If people are guilty until proven innocent, or if we hold ourselves to different standards than we hold others, we hurt ourselves. Much like the discussion on torture (which rarely works anyway), we can’t let fear cause us to deny the very moral and ethical foundation upon which the country was built. That includes a belief in individualism (not to collectivize the enemy, but focus on people as individuals), rule of law, and human rights.
So let me offer a bold suggestion. The US should offer the lawyers of Omar Khadr a deal. If he works with US psychologists and therapists to help him cope with recent years, he will be released back to his native Canada. Moreover, if it appears that Khadr has turned a corner, is no longer a threat, and regrets the time in Afghanistan, then Barack Obama should invite Omar Khadr to the White House. The right wing will be aghast, Obama mingling with a killer of an American soldier! Yet Khadr could be a symbol of how the US can, instead of turning a generation of Muslims into enemies through actions that contradict our values, win them over as friends by treating them with respect for their humanity.
That would be a risk. If Khadr plays nice until his release, but then goes back into the field and kills Americans in Afghanistan, Obama would be savagely ridiculed as a naive idealist. If, however, it works, we can build on this and the unraveling of the “culture of Guantanamo” to demonstrate to the world that we are not sacrificing our values out of fear. Yeah, we went overboard after 9-11, much like we did in the McCarthy era. But our values ultimately win, because that is the only way for our country to win.