Omar Khadr, Oh Canada Edited by Janice Williamson, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 450 pages, $24.95
The Enemy Within Terror, Lies and the Whitewashing of Omar Khadr By Ezra Levant, McClelland & Stewart, 250 pages, $29.99
In July, 2002, a 15-year-old Canadian citizen murdered U.S. Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer by throwing a grenade at him – or so the boy, Omar Khadr, confessed – and ever since, Khadr has been at the centre of a maelstrom of a morbidly fascinating series of hearings, verdicts, judgments and appeals that have trundled all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada and back.
With a father who was an al-Qaeda financier and commander, and pretty well an entire family in Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, Khadr has spent most of the past decade at the notorious U.S. military enclave in Cuba known as the Guantanamo detention centre.
Khadr’s travails in Guantanamo reached something of a denouement in October, 2010. Or so it seemed, after he pleaded guilty to murder and several other terrorism-related charges, and Ottawa signed off on a creepy bargain brokered by the White House to have him transferred back to Canada to serve out the final seven years of his sentence. Khadr was eligible for transfer last November, but for reasons Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has not explained, he’s still down there.
Intrigues abound, but there are many documented and necessary facts you will not read in Omar Khadr, Oh Canada about the boy hero of the anthology’s title. For one thing, you will not learn that Khadr, an accomplished al-Qaeda bomb-maker, is still keen on jihadism, or that his forensic psychiatrist, Michael Welner, deems him to be “full of rage” and a serious danger to society even 10 years after his arrest in Afghanistan.
Neither would you know that Khadr, whose claims of torture were dismissed by U.S. Military Judge Colonel Patrick Parrish two years ago as utterly without evidence or credibility, “even using a liberal interpretation considering the accused’s age,” is a cunning manipulator who has skillfully traded on his al-Qaeda status among his fellow inmates, or that he has admitted that when he feels a bit glum, he will cheer himself up by recalling happier times building infidel-killing land mines. You will read that Moazzam Begg, the Guantanamo alumnus and Khadr’s cellmate during their brief stay at the U.S. base at Baghram, who has served as the primary source of many of the allegations about Khadr’s torture, is a “lawyer and human rights activist.” You will not read that Begg, a former Birmingham, England, gangster who travelled to Afghanistan to take up the jihadist cause, is a charlatan who has cost Amnesty International’s reputation dearly owing to its foolish persistence in sponsoring him.
A surprising thing you will read is that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Khadr’s case that Ottawa was “complicit in the torture of Canadian citizens.” Anthology editor Janice Williamson asserts this as fact in the book’s introduction. But those words, or anything like them, do not appear in the Supreme Court’s January, 2010, decision. The court did rule, however, that Ottawa had violated Khadr’s constitutional rights, by commission and omission.
But facts aren’t really the point of Omar Khadr, Oh Canada. The point is to allow Williamson, a professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta, to bring together nearly three dozen poets, professors, lawyers, pundits and others to express the many ways they are appalled with and dismayed about the many undeniable injustices associated with Khadr’s confinement and trial, and to address the big questions they reckon the Khadr case raises.
In this way, the anthology provides a useful service as a kind of historical and cultural artifact of the received wisdom in Canada in regard to the past decade’s American-led “war on terror,” and the way it calcified around Omar Khadr’s sad and confounding story. The book’s got everything from thoughtful analysis and reflection to the comical weirdness that is indelibly associated with postcolonial studies.
At the reasonable end of the spectrum, University of Alberta political scientists Andy Knight and John McCoy take a refreshing look at the contested matter of whether Khadr is rightly considered a child soldier. If so, and recruitment of children to fight wars is an international crime, why aren’t any of the gruesome Canadian adults in the Khadr clan behind bars?
Then there’s Jasmin Zine, who teaches race, ethnic, gender and postcolonial studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Zine admonishes us to regard Baghram and Guantanamo as modern-day “colonial plantations” and Nazi concentration camps. She chalks up the Khadr affair to Canada’s collective multicultural failure to properly integrate his Egyptian-Palestinian family – it’s Canada’s fault the Khadrs opted for mayhem-wreaking from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. “In the end, I draw hope and inspiration from Omar Khadr,” Zine writes.
In The Enemy Within, Ezra Levant could have used Zine’s essay as Exhibit A in his case against the incoherence of what he calls Omar Khadr’s fan club in Canada.
“In the end, this was about denormalizing the war on terror, Guantanamo Bay, the American military, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, and above all U.S. president George Bush, and later, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” Levant writes. That’s his take on the Canadian news media’s handling of the Khadr story, and it’s a bit harsh. But if those words were intended as a brief review of Omar Khadr, Oh Canada, it would be fair enough.
Levant is a flamboyant lawyer-activist, author and faintly clownish but maddeningly astute Sun News Network personality, and he ends up providing a similarly useful service to Williamson’s anthology. The Enemy Within provides a helpful one-stop-shop-
ping deconstruction of Omar Khadr’s celebrity, and a compendium of arguments intended to relegitimize the “war on terror” and all else Williamson and her cohorts set out to unfavourably contextualize and deconstruct.
But like Williamson and her crew, Levant does harm to his own arguments by getting his facts wrong. It is true that most of the Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan were victims of precisely the kind of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) Khadr was so skilled in manufacturing. But it’s not true that the first Canadian casualty fell victim to an IED “planted by a teenager.” The first Canadian casualties were the four soldiers killed and eight wounded on April 17, 2002, at Tarnak Farm, near Kandahar, when an American F-16 fighter pilot dropped a bomb on them by mistake.
Like Williamson, Levant also harms his own case by his elisions; he doesn’t do himself a favour by characterizing waterboarding as only debatably a form of torture, for instance. But it is useful to be reminded that the Americans have waterboarded only three people, and none got that barbaric treatment at Guantanamo. Levant cherry-picks his facts as well, but at least it’s the facts he cherry-picks and not just rote citations of Tariq Ali and Judith Butler.
It says something about the polarization over the “war on terror” that you could end up understanding less about its complexities after reading either of these books than you understood before you started. To get any useful sense of the facts and arguments involved, especially as they relate to the saga of Omar Khadr, you’d be better off reading both of these books, or neither.
Terry Glavin writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. His most recent book is Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan.