Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Eighteen and Life to Go

Omar Khadr was fifteen years old that July day outside of Khost, Afghanistan in 2002 when American soldiers and Afghan mercenaries attacked the family compound.  After a lengthy firefight, the compound was strafed by Apache helicopter gunships, bombed by F16s and then a pair of A-10s made the rubble bounce. Most of the residents were killed in the aerial bombardment, but young Omar found himself alive in the rubble as the American troops assaulted down the alley.  In an exchange of grenades, he was struck by shrapnel and blinded in one eye, kneeling in the dust surrounded by collapsed walls.  An American soldier shot him twice in the back as he cleared the alley.

All that summer at Baghram he was tormented, deprived of care and forced to work.  He was interrogated repeatedly, under various forms of abuse, threat and coercion.  In the fall, a few days after turning sixteen, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay.  Having been born in Toronto, the Canadian Cabinet and Court demanded their government ask the US to treat Khadr the way US and Canadian law required them to treat minors, but in those post 9-11, pre Iraq invasion early days of the Bush Administration, the Canadian government was silent.  As was the world.

Over the next eight years the US has struggled to deal with the debacle they had created.  They charged this child soldier with war crimes, although no one could quite explain how it was that in this one isolated case, killing a soldier on the battlefield was a war crime.  The original explanation, that he was not in uniform, was quickly muted when the prosecutors were asked what uniform the Northern Alliance mercenaries were wearing when they fought alongside US troops in the battles to depose the Taliban government.

There was no obvious way to try him, as the evidence he provided came during or after abusive and coercive interrogations.  The US found itself holding a child soldier, something that is universally considered to be unacceptable, for a war crime that didn't seem to actually BE a war crime, on evidence that couldn't be admitted in a trial.  The obvious thing to do here is to let the kid go, give him a couple million dollars in compensation and deport him to Canada.  But in the US, if there's any overarching unwritten rule of governance, it is this:  "Never Admit You Were Wrong".

So they held Omar Khadr in Guantanamo Bay for years, devising one new legal system after another, trying to come up with the impossible:  A way to try Omar Khadr for war crimes that would guarantee a conviction and still look legitimate in the eyes of the world.  As the years passed and the young man became an adult, he waited for the US to decide his fate.  And though it took many years, the Americans finally became convinced that there was simply no way to convict this former child soldier without using tactics that would have looked very similar to the old Soviet "show trials".  So they played their very last card.  They would threaten to just hold him forever, essentially taking his entire life away, if he didn't plead guilty.  The utterly indefensible war crimes charges went away, and he ultimately pled to murder and terrorism charges.  He would serve eight more years, seven of them in Canada.

The whole process has been ugly, stupid and unnecessary.  Nobody came out whole.  Khadr lost his sight, his innocence and decades of his life, the US lost any credibility it might have had as it stumbles through the legacy of repeated human rights violations under the Bush/Cheney Administration, the Canadians have been absent, and human rights organizations have been powerless to affect the process.  It's a demonstration of everything that's wrong with the American response to 9/11, from using armies and air forces against terrorists to throwing everything we believed about civil liberties, due process and the rule of law out the window to manipulating the judicial system itself to try to control the outcome has been not just wrong, but completely counterproductive.

What has been accomplished by bringing the full might of America to bear on Omar Khadr?  After we bombed him, blew him up, blinded him, shot him twice, tortured him and held him without due process for the best part of a decade, did we really need to show him once more how powerful we are?  Where is the line, where Justice crosses over into Vengeance?  Where is the threshold, where we decide that the things we believe, the things we ARE, have become insufficient, our lives more desperately important than the lofty ideals of a great nation?  When did we decide that Patrick Henry was a crazed extremist, and we would accept any amount of indignity, any level of injustice, any act of corrupt power our government might choose to commit, if only they might keep us safe?  Is there NO amount of risk we are willing to take on in the name of our Democratic principles?

In the Stygian blackness at the bottom of 21st century America, Omar Khadr was the last, best canary we had.  There for any and all to see, he's telling us time is running out.  If not already too late, it's a long way back to the air and sunlight of a fearlessly free America.  Is anybody watching?


  1. If not already too late, it's a long way back to the air and sunlight of a fearlessly free America. Is anybody watching?

    Not even the "liberal-biased" NYT and WaPo, mikey.

    They're too busy covering up. (Greenwald exposes John Burns for the war-monger that he is.)

  2. The Canadian government has sucked all the way through the process. A kid can choose sides for trivial reasons; he's got all sorts of reasons to hate Canadians and Americans now.