Omar Khadr was a child soldier.
During the carnage that gripped Sierra Leone in the 1990s, the most terrifying crimes were often committed by gangs of children who’d been abducted by the Revolutionary United Front. Isolated from their family, and stripped of any sort of moral compass, these child brigades were renowned for such monstrous acts as hacking off the legs and arms of defenseless villagers. When the RUF’s war with the government ended, many of these children were assimilated back into civilized society. No one — in the West, at least — blamed them for what they had done. As in Sri Lanka, Congo, and other parts of the world where children are abducted and forced into combat, it is universally recognized that child soldiers are not morally culpable for their actions in the same way as adults. That’s why the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal didn’t prosecute child soldiers — it prosecuted the monsters who exploited them. Can someone please tell me why this principle has not been applied to Omar Khadr, who was all of 15 when he allegedly threw the grenade that killed Sgt Christopher Speer of Delta Force in 2002?
What makes the case for Khadr especially strong is that he was essentially recruited into combat from birth — by his own flesh-and-blood no less. The true monster in the Khadr narrative is not Omar, but his father, Ahmed Said Khadr, an al-Qaeda lieutenant who moved his whole family from Canada to central Asia so they could share in the glory of jihad.
As a nine-year-old, Omar drank in his father’s Islamist propaganda — spending months by his father’s bed as the jihadi patriarch lay hunger-striking against Pakistani authorities, who’d arrested him on terrorism charges in 1995. Following 9/11, Ahmed (who, thankfully, was dispatched to his celestial virgins in 2003) enlisted his son as a sort of sidekick and maidservant to a jihadi cell hiding out in the Afghan outback. It was in this capacity that Omar tagged along with the pack of terrorists who would eventually be killed in the June 27, 2002 firefight that claimed the life of Sgt Speer.
I have spent today reading a lot of tough talk on the blogs about how Khadr should be “waterboarded until he stops crying” and such. I wonder if those same hawks could tell me how they would have turned out if they’d been told — literally, since the day they were born — about the necessity of jihad and the beauty of martyrdom; if, since early days, they’d been propagandized into believing that the West was waging a genocidal war against Muslims; and that military resistance was the only path of survival. Are we to expect some sort of inborn moral sense to activate — to tell us that everything being told to us by our own parents is wrong — even before one is old enough to shave?
I know about 20,000 former child soldiers in Sierra Leone who could tell you the answer to that question. And unlike Khadr, not one of them stands accused of “Violation of the Law of War.”
Omar Khadr probably didn’t kill anyone.
The U.S. government’s line on the events of June 27, 2002 — reported uncritically, for the most part, by the Canadian media — is that a cowardly Khadr popped up from the rubble in the aftermath of a firefight in the Afghan hinterland, killing a U.S. medic who was looking to treat wounded survivors. In fact, the grenade that killed Speer (who was fighting as a solider, whatever his training as a medic) was thrown when the four-hour long battle was still hot — and it is far from clear who threw it: Contrary to initial accounts, there was a second jihadi still alive when the fatal grenade was thrown — and since Khadr was badly wounded at the time, the second militant (who later died) seems the more likely candidate.
(We might also dispense with the idea that Speer was on a mission of mercy: Post-battle testimony from his battlefield companions suggests they were — quite understandably — more interested in shooting the wounded than healing them.)
My own view is that Speer may well have been killed by a grenade thrown by one of his comrades. (Reports from the battle suggest that grenades were flying thick and fast from both sides.) As the Pat Tillman scandal shows, the U.S. military sometimes goes to extraordinary lengths to cover up friendly-fire deaths. And in the Khadr case, his U.S. Department of Defense attorney claims, there is at least one instance in which a U.S. lieutenant-colonel retroactively amended and backdated a battlefield report to buttress the case against Khadr.
Even if Khadr did kill Sgt. Speer, he did so as a soldier, not a terrorist.
There’s little doubt that Ahmed Said Khadr was training his sons to be terrorists — the sort of people who blow up buses and restaurants, or who wear civilian clothing as they lie in wait to detonate explosives under vehicle convoys. But what Omar Khadr did on June 27, 2002 wasn’t terrorism. It was participation in a military engagement — a fact that can’t be changed merely by slapping a label like “unlawful combatant” on him.
Moreover, it was a military engagement fought on American terms: After U.S. soldiers sealed off the village encampment housing Khadr’s cell, they prosecuted the siege with about 100 troops, some of them Special Forces, as well as Apache helicopters, F-18 Hornets and A-10 Warthogs. You can say that Khadr was fighting in an evil cause when he was captured, but you can’t say that he was preying on the defenseless.
Even if you don’t buy anything I’ve written above, Khadr’s treatment still ranks as abominable.
Let us assume that Omar Khadr actually threw the grenade that killed Sgt Christopher Speer; that he did so as a cold-blooded killer, not as a soldier; and that his status as a child combatant is irrelevant — in short, that Omar Khadr is a murderer. Well then, how do we treat murderers in Western countries? Answer: We put them in jail. We don’t beat them; or move them from cell to cell every three hours; or terrify them with threats of pedophilic rape; or deny them appropriate medical care — all punishments that Khadr has endured — a litany of abuse so traumatic that, according to one piteous detail among many, he took to falling asleep at Guantanamo desperately hugging a Mickey Mouse book brought to him as a gift. In the space of six years incarceration, Khadr has endured more brutality than any ordinary jailbird would endure in 60.
That’s punishment enough. Please bring Omar Khadr home.
I couldn’t agree more. Well said.