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Omar Khadr, the Teenager Who Really Did Have Something to Sulk About

July 17, 2008

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen who was captured by American forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and has been locked up at Guantanamo Bay ever since. Omar made the news this week because his Canadian lawyers released some grainy video excerpts from his interrogation at Guantanamo by visiting CSIS officials. So far I’ve only found time to view the first one, which can be seen here.

Omar, now 21, was 16 when the video was taken, and much of the conversation will probably sound familiar to anyone who’s ever heard a frustrated adult reasoning with a sullen teenager. A male interrogator says banal things like “your feet are still at the end of your legs” and “you want a chocolate bar or something?” Meanwhile, Omar bitterly accuses the interrogator of not caring about him. At one point, however, Omar’s distress comes through. He buries his face in his hands and repeatedly moans what has been variously interpreted as “Kill me!”, “Help me!”, or the Arabic “Ya ummi!” [“Oh, mother!”]. All three are poignant in their very different ways.

What was Omar so upset about? Plausible answers can be found in a Rolling Stone piece describing his relentless interrogations at the hands of the Americans. For instance:

An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of his chains and pushed him over on his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left… He urinated on himself and on the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while and then poured pine-oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil.

Subjecting a teenager to such discomfort and degradation, with little prospect of obtaining useful intelligence, seems wildly disproportionate. And the cruelty apparently continued, not for months but for YEARS.

We shouldn’t forget that Omar was in the ranks of our Taliban enemies, and I think reasonable people can disagree on whether our government should try to get him out of “Gitmo” and bring him to Canada. However, the CSIS interrogation shown in the video brings our country awfully close to active complicity in his mistreatment. It’s time to stop and ask ourselves how far we really want to march alongside America in this “war on terror” nonsense.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    July 24, 2008 5:26 pm

    Well, I guess I’ve got an assigned topic for my next post… but I’ve been meaning to write a general discussion of our involvement in Afghanistan, and Iraq will make a good point of comparison. More to follow soon.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    July 23, 2008 11:52 pm

    Cor, mea culpa; can’t remember if it was in this thread or in another ( A-stan/K-jailbreak)…my apologies for the atrocious syntax etc – am on the run today – the article i had mentioned re P. Krugman/NYTonline was in error- it was Frank Rich, July 13/08, “The Real-Life ’24’ Summer of 2008” – i’m very interested in your ongoing thoughts re A-stan v Iraq re “where if anywhere” Canada should be, both in terms of diplomatic/foreign affairs/UN votes and on the ground. tx again for your detailed comments. R

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    July 22, 2008 9:40 pm

    Renee – You’ve given me a lot to think about and address, and I suspect that some of what I have to say in response may sound awfully uninformed to someone with actual legal training. But here goes…

    I haven’t read any of Blatchford’s stuff about the Khadrs, but in general I agree with your assessment of her. She’s a solid journalist and a snappy writer, but she comes with a touch of unpleasant narrow-mindedness and even paranoia (at least when it comes to Islamic terrorism). Then again, the radical and dangerous side of Islam is real, and the subject is so often handled with kid gloves that Blatchford’s bluntness can actually be refreshing. I just wish she could be equally bold and honest, and a bit less blinkered.

    Speaking of radical Islam, I think the really odd and ironic thing about the Khadrs is that Omar’s father Ahmad Said apparently arrived in Canada as a reasonably secular Arab and developed hardline views only later, when he was studying engineering at the University of Ottawa. Instead of assimilating, he went in precisely the opposite direction, and got to the point where he wanted to return to the Middle East. Then he went on to Pakistan and Afghanistan, got involved with the jihad, and the rest is history… except that the family kept shuttling back and forth to Toronto, and many of them seem to have ended up more or less stranded there now that the jihad is in trouble and Ahmad is dead. The articles I’ve read about them, especially a profile by Michael Friscolanti in Maclean’s, make them seem more hapless than anything else. No doubt they’re angry with Canada at some level, but they don’t seem to be in a position to do much about it.

    It’s late at night here, and I’m beginning to ramble, so I won’t try to say much about the legal process Omar Khadr is caught up in. However, discussions of whether he was “guilty” of killing an American soldier have always struck me as a bit surreal. Maybe he was guilty of betraying Canada by joining the Taliban, but once he was in the Taliban, killing the American invaders was just his job. In a logical world, the U.S. would either be treating him as a prisoner of war, and indeed a child soldier, or extraditing him to Canada to go on trial for treason or something similar (with obvious mitigating circumstances, like being a teenager who had learned jihad at his father’s knee). But given his background and his rather tenuous links to Canada, I simply can’t muster much visceral desire for our government to impose that logic and rescue him from the American tribunals, even if that were a practical possibility. Can you?

    Finally, I appreciate the rhetorical flourish, but I’m pretty sure that Guantanamo Bay is nowhere near being the worst place on Earth for prisoners… alarming, perhaps, but true.

    Thanks again for the comments. –Corwin

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    July 20, 2008 5:51 pm

    Cor, as promised: the strange uncomfortable perhaps tragic case of the Khadr family – some thoughts:

    re your assessment of the video record of Omar’s treatment:
    “Subjecting a teenager to such discomfort and degradation, with little prospect of obtaining useful intelligence, seems wildly disproportionate. And the cruelty apparently continued, not for months but for YEARS.” Yup. That would be bad and puts Canada in an enviable position given the world context of what’s going on at “Gitmo”.

    Do you remember the initial media accounts of this family, of Omar, by writers such as C.Blatchford, when the first new reports circulated about the Khadr’s? I remember seeing telecasts of a rare interview Mrs K gave to the media. I was not impressed (i’m trained as a lawyer but have no criminal law background). I just couldn’t shake my “viewer only/no facts at hand” impression that the Khadr’s were “taking advantage of Canada”.

    But why did i think that? Was that the given media frame at the time? Blatchford, whose skills as a journalist i appreciate but whose conclusions and world view i often disagree with, is now at the Globe.

    What do you think of her assessments of Canada and A-stan?

    I liked the way you were able to parse out what should bother us about Omar Khadr’s case: the apparent build up of case evidence, not least of which is a consideration of Geneva Convention rules with regards to his age at time of initial incarceration, regarding his treatment as a prisoner.

    But, also, a recogntion of why Mr.Khadr is a prisoner at the worst place on earth for prisoners, in the first place.

    Looking forward to your further thoughts on this.

    btw, today in Vancouver, there is a protest in favor of Omar Khadr, demanding his release.

  5. corsullivan permalink*
    July 18, 2008 9:10 pm

    Renee, I always enjoy your posts as well, so reciprocal thanks are due. I’ll look forward to reading your further thoughts.

  6. reneethewriter permalink
    July 18, 2008 7:35 pm

    What a gutsy piece – i’ve been really troubled over this whole Khadr situation. More, later. But please accept my thanks. Your posts are a pleasure to read. R

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