Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Omar Khadr

I don't want to add to the slew of commentary on Khadr that repeats the same old lines. I'll try to say something a bit different and if I don't succeed, let me know. Khadr's case is intensely political.  A friend asked me today what I thought of it and I told him that I had made up my mind a long time ago. He was going to jail, convicted of murder or admitting it one way or the other. He had to. His die was cast. I don't, however, think this makes him a victim; nor do I think he is innocent. And herein lies precisely the problem.
       Here are the facts as I know them with the proviso that I won't claim to be an expert. Khadr was a relatively young teen who had been intensely socialized. Along with other family members he was in Afghanistan working with al-Qaeda. The US and other forces invaded, he was a driver for an important person in that organization. A firefight ensued and he threw a grenade at people who, he had been taught since birth, were the enemy. And, not just the enemy but evil. This grenade killed a soldier, a good man leaving a heartbroken family behind.
      Much of the critical commentary on Khadr's treatment has suggested that a grave injustice has been done in his case. He was a child who had not had a neutral upbringing. He was involved in a firefight and a war -- even if it was not called that -- was in progress. How is one supposed to respond to a war if one believe one is being invaded? Is he a child soldier under the UN definition? Here is what I know.

  • No conviction is going to bring back the dead soldier. 
  • The discourse of victim and guilty party does not work well in this case.
  • His trial and guilty plea (or, conviction if it had come to that) were needed because those who supported al-Qaeda needed to be branded as bad people and the organization could not be recognized as a legitimate military organization even if it was responding to an invasion.
And, most importantly, people die in military conflicts. Leaving this particular case aside for a second many of those people who kill other people in conflicts are not bad people. They are not criminals looking to mug someone to make an easy buck. They are not organized criminals selling drugs to kids. They are often ordinary people put in rotten situations. They often believe they are acting for the right reasons -- for reasons of faith or nation or security -- and find themselves compelled to do horrible things. This is the best reason to avoid conflicts if at all possible.
      Yet, this way of thinking runs counter to the effective fighting of wars and that is why it is not part of any official discourse. If governments admit that they are sending people to kill other people whose only crime was intense socialization by their parents ... well ... that doesn't go over very well on the home front, does it? If we concede that the people who are cast as bad (as terrorists and murderers) might be ordinary people much like us, well ... that doesn't go over very well on the homefront, does it? It seems to me vitally important that we remember these things.
     It also seems to me vitally important that we consider the implications of people doing horrible things who might not be guilty in the way we understand the word normally. It seems to me that if we lose cite of this idea we run the risk of being no better than the ideologues and fundamentalists we condemn. Finally, it seems to me vitally important that we hold out the hope of  reconciliation and reform. I don't expect Christopher Speer's widow will ever embrace Omar Khadr. No one should ever blame her for that. As a society, however, we have to hold out the possibility that people who have done horrible things can still make amends and can strive for forgiveness. And, if we say (however understandable this may be from an individual perspective) that we will never forgive ... what are we saying? We are saying that we will abandon the hope of reconciliation; we will abandon the hope of people changing.
     What happens if we change our thinking? What happens if we hold out the hope that real change in individuals is possible? What happens if we hold out the idea that those people who are our enemies are not bad people? What happens if we think about the mental competence of child soldiers placed in violent situations? Can we find a way to think beyond the victim/guilty dichotomy? I have mentioned a couple of times in this blog that I'm a Christian. Let me be even clearer: I self identify as an evangelical Christian. There is no doubt that this perspective colours my views. I don't like to judge others (that is not moral relativism on my part as any one who knows me will tell you, but judgement is God's business; not mine); Jesus always forgave and those who follow Jesus must follow his model. And, Jesus did not give up. So ... I won't.
      Many of those who condemn Khadr are Christians as well, evangelicals in fact, so you can likely easily find a different view from mine. My take, however, is that the principles laid down in The Bible regarding forgiveness, judgement, etc., are good principles that should be followed. They might, in fact, help us think this issue differently and think our responses in a different way.
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